The hefty price we pay for “attention switching”
Photo by Chase Clark
I remember the 9-year-old me, back home from school, laid back on the couch. Randomly switching TV channels in quick successions. Trying to find something interesting to get hooked on.
Every time I did that, my mom shot at me,“You need to stop switching channels so frequently. It’s a bad habit. You’ll damage your brain.”
I got annoyed. Not only because of what she said but because she blocked my view while she said that. I ignored her and kept switching channels anyway. It was no big deal, I thought. I was stupid.
Little did she know. Years down the lane, technology would boom so fast that her son would carry around a mini TV in his pocket. He would spend hours switching between a ton of channels. Consuming a ton of content, on multiple platforms.
She never could have imagined social media would become her son’s constant companion. It would become his playmate and his workmate. Walking with him everywhere he went. Buzzing in the background, vying for his attention.
She could never know. Now she never will. But she was right, about almost everything.
Then vs Now
A lot has changed.
As a millennial peeping into my early years, I now realize TV wasn’t harmful or sinister at all. It had its place at home. We chose when to switch it on. And we were conscious about our watch times.We owned it. We had it under our control. Nobody watched us from behind the screen.
We were mostly undisturbed. And we could focus on our important tasks.
You see back then linearity existed in whatever we did. It wasn’t uncommon or forgotten as it is today. People could work on a single task, uninterrupted, for long hours. Straight thinking, hyper-focus or “flow states” happened naturally — thanks to fewer digital distractions. These phenomena weren’t as rare as it seems today.
Today, our attention spans are depleting faster than ever. We now lose interest quicker than ever. All due to the rapid influx of fragmented content tactfully fed to us — 24/7.
A new study in Nature Communications showed that our collective attention span is narrowing.“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention. And our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly,” says Philipp Lorenz-Spreen from Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Our available amount of attention remains more or less the same. But the problem, Philipp highlights, is that we are made aware of something happening, quickly. And as a result, we also lose interest in whatever we engage in, quickly. We’re obsessed with the continuous flow of information.
You often see old people saying, “Quick, kid. Fix my Facebook news feed. The world is about to end. I gotta see it live.”
Even though this study focused on our collective attention span, I think the information deluge we face today greatly impacts us on an individual level as well. Our individual attention span, too, is narrowing.
All You Need to Do
It’s big time. Stop attention switching and start attention stretching.
We need to hone our ability to evaluate the content we consume. And prioritise quality over quantity.
When it comes to digital content, (and social media in particular) it’s time to let go of that wretched fear of missing out. So that we don’t numb ourselves and sleepwalk through life. So that we become mentally strong and resilient enough to make conscious choices, and to set conscious goals.
We must stay focused and interested in the information that is meaningful to us, tasks that matter to us. Never allowing algorithms or big tech to control our minds and dictate our lives.
Read on. Know more about how you can avoid information overload and use social media more consciously.
Your Obsession for Quick, Shallow Information is Weakening Your Memory
Reflections, Harsh Realizations: From a Former Social Media Addict
Unhook Your Mind from YouTube’s Manipulative Algorithm
Ever Wondered Why We Lose Interest In Almost Anything So Quickly? was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.