DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI, clinical psychologist at Mind N Life Hong Kong, looks at the impact of technology on attention spans and the effects of social media on mental health and development. Is it time for a sabbatical from our screens?
Waning attention spans
There is no such thing as multitasking, only multi-failing! My children grew up hearing this from me almost every day.
As many of you know, I’m passionate about raising awareness around the impact of technology on our relationships and our children’s development, and the use of social media and its effects on mental health.
Research shows that, on average, a student in the US pays attention to one thing for just 19 seconds, and they switch tasks once every 35 seconds; another study shows that an adult working in an office stays on one task for three minutes. And yet we know from previous research that it takes something like 23 minutes for our brains to fully switch attention from one task to another!
We are creating a pathogenic culture and environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard to achieve. We have to consistently swim upstream to stay focused. This is a worrying trend, and it begs the question: what is the impact of this cognitive degradation on us and our children?
The problem is occurring at two levels:
#1 At a personal level
The inability to pay sustained attention affects our daily goals and our life goals. Attention is important in all aspects of our lives – in our relationships, passions, hobbies, and in our sense of achievement, fulfilment and connectedness. If you can’t pay attention, you’re less able to form meaningful connections and more likely to have only surface-level experiences.
#2 At a collective level
What is happening at the individual level is happening to society as a whole: that is, our problem-solving abilities are being hugely impacted. People who can’t focus are usually drawn to simplistic solutions to problems that are authoritarian, angry and reactive. At a time when we need sensible solutions more than ever, there is a lack of nuance and lack of respect of other people’s opinions and an inability to consider their perspectives.
It’s important that we become aware of these impacts on an individual level as well as a collective societal level so that we can hopefully begin to take small steps towards helping our children and the next generation be more attentive and empathetic.
Why are attention spans waning?
In the past, we might have grown up with the concept of paying attention to one task at a time. Today, though, we live with perpetual information overload. The increase in the volume and pace of information creates a sense of the world speeding up. It’s exhausting, and it comes at the cost of the quality, depth and meaning of the information and our understanding of it. The capacity of the human brain hasn’t significantly changed. We are biologically wired to pay attention to a single task, and we can only have one or two thoughts at one time.
The “switch-cost effect” refers to the time it takes for our brains to reconfigure when switching from task to task. When you get distracted from a task and then turn back to it, you have to recall all your thoughts about it. When this happens, performance drops. If you’re receiving texts or social media updates while trying to work, for example, you’re not just losing those seconds or minutes, you’re also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards. And you’re also more prone to making mistakes.
Another cost of multitasking is a drop in innovation and creativity. New thoughts arise when your brain makes new connections around what you’ve seen, heard and learnt; it needs free, undistracted time to create these associative links.
An abundance of research shows that interruption and distraction ruin our ability to pay attention and damage our ability to think clearly. One study measured the IQ of workers at Hewlett-Packard and it showed a drop of 20 to 30 IQ points when the testing was undertaken while they had technological distractions.
The danger is that we’re losing out on experiencing the moments of our life where we are fully present. Because of screens and smartphones, we’re operating at a lower-grade version of who we could be. Unfortunately, and sadly, we’re getting used to it and beginning to think it’s normal – and we’re passing this on to the next generation.
What we can we do about it
There are some obvious steps:
- Turn off notifications! Although it can be hard to resist the informational tap on your shoulder, it’s okay to put your phone onto “do not disturb”.
- Put strategies in place to manage information overload. We have to be able to filter out irrelevant information and pay selective attention to what is important.
- Learn to sit with “boredom” and resist the strong attraction to using social media as a gap-filler
At the same time, individual self-control is only part of the solution, since our attention is being manipulated on a societal level. As Johann Hari, the British-Swiss author of Stolen Focus, says, “The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.” Or, in the words of American tech entrepreneur Tristan Harris, “You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.”
The engineering power of online algorithms is based on surveillance capitalism; it’s all built around one thing, and that is how to keep us scrolling. Or perhaps “doom-scrolling” is the more appropriate term, because unfortunately, the way these algorithms are designed is with a strong focus on words that evoke anger and fear.
The result is that our minds become focused on keeping ourselves safe from unexpected dangers that are supposedly all around; this way, more of our attention shifts to searching for danger (the aforementioned “doom-scrolling”), and less is available for a long read of a book or playing a game with our kids. This in turn leads to increased stress hormones in our bodies.
For us to flourish and function at our full potential we need to reclaim our focus and attention, first at an individual level and then at a societal level. Children have needs and it’s our job as their carers to create an environment where these needs are met – and that means being present for them.
We have been so heavily reliant on technology, and during the pandemic in particular everybody is suffering from screen fatigue. So now is the time when globally children should be actively engaging in activities that involve free play, increased eye-to-eye contact and decreased screen-to-eye contact.
A change in policy?
It was interesting when I mentioned this in a talk at a school recently – I had been invited to speak about the stress of the pandemic and its impact on children and teens. One of the questions the students asked was, “What do you wish for?” – and my wish was for all the children in Hong Kong to have a sabbatical from the screen over the summer holidays. The school principal didn’t look impressed at the suggestion, and indeed that part of the interview wasn’t included in the final video of the visit.
We’re unlikely to see many changes due to the reliance that social media companies have on our attention. A significant overhaul cannot take place without considerable financial loss. This is where governments and policymakers around the world have to show up and make the change. Yet, if school administrators find the idea of a temporary technology sabbatical abhorrent, imagine the governmental response…
Yet we do need to give our children an opportunity to be the best versions of themselves – and we at least can start by doing that ourselves.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist in Hong Kong who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
We hope you found this article on the effects of social media on mental health and attention spans interesting. See more in our Health & Fitness section.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2022 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.