The quantity of information that we are exposed to every single day is astounding: we now in 2021 take in five times more information than we did in 1986. With our attention spans eroded to approximately eight seconds in our digital landscape, we have learned that to consume is to skim. Most of the text content is forced to be skipped. The American Press Institute found in 2014 that six in 10 people reported not reading beyond the headline in the past week.
About 73% of Americans report feeling certain degree of information overload, yet we continue to interface with it on a variety of devices and media, both professional and social. 1 It is estimated that the average millennial picks up the smartphone 150 times a day. This is purely technology addiction. In 2008, a statistical study conducted at Scotland’s Dundee University found that adults over the age of 55 who grew up in a household with a black-and-white TV set were more likely to dream in black and white. However, younger participants, who grew up in the age of Technicolor, nearly always experienced their dreams in color. 2 This shows the etching impact of the media over the mind.
The American Psychological Association supported these findings in 2011. Over-usage of technology harms the brain systems connecting emotional processing, attention and decision-making. Another study links anxiety, severe depression, suicide attempts and suicide with the rise in use of smartphones, tablets and other devices.3
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is defined by The New York Times as “the blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media”. Social media is blasted with pictures and posts of scrumptious dinners, raging parties and enviable travel check-ins.4
Phantom Vibration Syndrome is the perception that one’s mobile is vibrating or ringing when it is not; it is branded as a tactile hallucination since the brain perceives a sensation that is not present.5
The study also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” paralleled with only 10% of those over the age of 65.
Bulk of cell phone users reported the experiencing of phantom vibrations, with reported rates ranging from 27.4% to 89%. The relentless use of technology has shortened our attention span. People who are online an average of 5 hours a day has suffering remembering people’s names. The incessant stimulation from electronics makes our brain accustom to “popping”, fast-paced stream of information that we find on the internet.
The internet age has changed the general attention span. Technology has also altered human physiology. It affects our memory, attention spans and sleep cycles. This is generally attributed to a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to alter its behavior based on new experiences. Technological addiction may be lead to another risk factor for alcohol and other drug abuse. People who misuse technology develop similar brain chemistry and neural patterning to those who are addicted to substances; brain scans of people with tech addiction disorder are very similar to those people with addictions to alcohol and cannabis.
Decreasing Attention Span
Attention span is the amount of time spent focused on a task before becoming distracted. Distractibility occurs when attention is irrepressibly diverted to another activity or sensation. Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus and sustain attention is critical for a person to achieve their goals. Attention training is said to be part of education, particularly in the way students are skilled to remain focused on a topic of observation or discussion for extended periods, developing listening and analytical skills in the process.
Earlier, it was found that older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children. The average attention span in children is: 7 minutes for 2-year-olds; 9 minutes for 3-year-olds; 12 minutes for 4-year-olds; and, 14 minutes for 5-year-olds. Common estimates for continued attention to a freely chosen task range from about 5 minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults. 6
Attention span peaks in humans early 40’s then gradually declines in old age. 7 One study involving of 2600 children found that early exposure to television is associated with later attention problems such as inattention, impulsiveness, disorganization, and distractibility at age seven. 8
Many working professionals suffer from attention discrepancies; a number of physical and mental health issues can contribute to abbreviated attention spans, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and conditions such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It is to be taken account that the type of activity used in the test affects the results, as people are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating. 9
According to scientific research, our attention span has markedly decreased in just 15 years. In 2000, it was 12 seconds; 15 years later, it’s shrunk significantly to 8.25 seconds. According to a new study from Microsoft Corporation, people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain. Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (the year when the mobile revolution surged) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. In fact, scientists reckon we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, which are able to focus on a task or object for 9 seconds.
Human beings are very forgetful; 25% of teens forget major details of close friends and relatives. 7% of people forget their own birthday from time to time, and studies suggest that each week, 39% of Americans will forget one basic piece of information or lose one every day item. Moreover, we’re also easily distracted! An average office worker will check their email in box 30 times every hour and will pick up their phones more than 1,500 times per week amounting to 3 hours and 16 minutes a day. This is all the more unnecessary thing, but all have taken this abnormal behavior as normal.
When we’re browsing online, on the average web page, users will read at most 28% of the words during a visit, with 20% a more likely expectation. Research shows that the average page visit lasts less than a minute and users often leave web pages in just 10-20 seconds. Further, 59% of senior executives would prefer to watch video than read text where both were available.
“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the study shows.
Effect of Decreased Attention Span
Listening is much deeper than reading. Human beings are only been reading for a few centuries, but have talked and told stories for millennia. It is well worth the effort to learn the art. Humans are most complex animals living in a complex environment. Researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom found that: “Although people have a remarkable inclination to engage in pro-social behaviors, there are substantial differences between individuals. Empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another person’s feelings has been put forward as a critical motivator of pro-social behaviors, but we wanted to test why and how they might be linked.” 10
Empathy implies a shared interpersonal experience and is implicated in many aspects of social cognition and morality. Cognitive scientist Herbert Simon (1916-2001) made this observation: “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.” To examine developmental changes associated with empathy, Decety and Michalska collected fMRI and behavioral data from a group of 57 participants ranging from 7 to 40 years of age while they were exposed to short video clips depicting people accidentally in pain or intentionally harmed by another individual. Results at the whole-group level showed that attending to painful situations caused by accident was associated with activation of the pain matrix including the anterior medial cingulate cortex, insula, periaqueductal gray and somatosensory cortex. 11
The ability to see how our actions impact others every day is essential to a healthy society. In 2010, a University of Michigan study found college students were 40% less empathetic than they were in the late 70s and early 80s, and that students were less likely to endorse statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” or “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” As narcissism increases empathy levels fall. 12
Constant attention galloping compels “multitasking”; which demand rapid switching from one thing to the other.As the late Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor, put it, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” which hampers not just concentration but also analytic understanding and empathy. Everybody know that mindfulness improved concentration and lessened mind-wandering. Attention is critical for working memory; if we aren’t paying attention, those digits won’t register in the first place. Emotional intelligence requires self-awareness—awareness of our own minds and emotions—as well as empathy, both of which can be cultivated by honing our skills of attention.
People with a short attention span may encounter problems for any length of time without being easily distracted.
A lesser attention span can have several negative effects, including:
- Poor performance at work or school
- Missing significant details or information
- Communication difficulties in relationships
- Data wouldn’t emerge as knowledge, as the data is being bombarded haphazardly.
- Empathy and the kindness it sparks are essential human traits. Decrease in attention span decreases empathy.
- Big picture is lost, and easily carried out by propaganda.
Storytelling to Improve Attention Capacity
Storytelling is one of the ancient methods of communicating ideas and images. In the traditional societies, young children were told stories by their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. As young people progress through their early years, listening skills become increasingly imperative, and there’s no better way to improve attention span and listening skills than by telling stories to keep them focused. Listening to a story told will often lock it in one’s mind almost automatically. Storytelling is an outstanding means of introducing children to the wonderful world of books while building positive attitudes for reading. The exposure to oral language patterns helps increasing children’s listening skills.
– Storytelling allows the child to create images in her imagination, it evokes the students’ imagination, listening to story encourages students to use their imaginations that empowers students to consider new ideas. As a result it builds self-confidence and personal inspiration.
– Storytelling can change the difficult ideas into easy ones and make the abstract language, in a teachable way.
– Listening to stories improves listening skills and many language skills, such as vocabulary, comprehension, sequencing and story recall.
-Storytelling is effective in augmenting communicative skills. Activities such as learning how to tell a story by writing it down, talking about it, and learning to actively listen to someone else’s story teach vital language skills in meaningful contexts. The more we know the art of story-telling, the better will be able to teach.
Storytelling humanizes learning. Stories affect our emotions and make us laugh, cry, fear, and get angry. Storytelling can instigate students to explore their unique expressiveness and can heighten a student’s ability to communicate thoughts and feelings in an articulate, lucid manner. When a habit of listening to stories is inculcated in children, they learn to become better listeners. It offers them the necessary training to listen and understand more, instead of talking.
- Julie Gurner, Time magazine, November 13, 2015
- Jonathan Gabay, Brand Psychology, London: Kogan Page, 2015, p.207
- Nasrin Izadinia et al, ScienceDirect, Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 5 (2010) 1515–1519
- Jenna Wortham, The New York Times, April 9, 2011
- Tim Locke, Do You Have ‘Phantom Vibration Syndrome’? Webmd, January 11, 2016
- Charles Schaefer, Howard Millman, How to Help Children with Common Problems, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc, 1994, p.18
- Francesca C Fortenbaugh et al; “Sustained Attention Across the Life Span in a Sample of 10,000”, Psychological Science, 2015, 26 (9): 1497–1510
- Christakis, D.A et al, “Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children”, April 2004, Pediatrics. 113 (4): 708–713
- David Cornish, Dianne Dukette, The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team, Pittsburgh, PA: RoseDog Books, 2009, p.72–73
- Patricia L. Lockwood et al, “Neuro-computational mechanisms of pro-social learning and links to empathy,” August 15 2016 doi:10.1073/pnas.1603198113
- Decety J, Michalska KJ, Neurodevelopmental changes in the circuits underlying empathy and sympathy from childhood to adulthood. Dev Sci. 2010
- Kevin Mcspadden, You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish, Time magazine, May 14, 2015
V.A. Mohamad Ashrof is one among the Muslim scholars of Kerala who is regularly publishing articles and papers dealing with Islam and Contemporary Affairs. He has worked as the Executive Editor of Al-Harmony, a Quarterly Journal on Islam and Thought and Ethics, for 10 years. He is the joint secretary of Forum for Faith and Fraternity- a Muslim think tank based in Kochi. He is also the Secretary of International Interfaith Dialogue India, an interfaith movement based in Kerala. He has published more than 30 papers in international Islamic publications like Al-Harmony, Journal of MWL, Islamic Voice, Young Muslim Digest, Milli Gazette etc. He has published more than 20 articles in the most serious Islam academic quarterly journal in Malayalam, Bodhanam. He is the author of 2 English Books (‘Islamic Dimensions’, ‘Islam and Gender Justice: Questions at the Interface’) and 2 Malayalam books (The Host and the Hunter: Critique of Anand’s writings). One Malayalam book ‘Christian Zionism: Critique’ has attained great acclamation from the scholarly world.
- Link to read his book on Islam and Gender Justice at Google Books:
- His book Islamic Dimensions can be viewed at: