Paying attention: does our digital dependency come at a cost?

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Hands up. Who out there has sat through a presentation in the past few years that hasn’t included the goldfish slide?

You know, the one about our attention span now being lower than that of our famously-forgetful tank-dwelling friends thanks to the mobile phone. According to scientists. Or the Goldfish Intelligence Appreciation Society. Or something.

Anyway, it’s not many of you, I’m willing to bet. No deck feels complete without one.

And whenever the goldfish slide inevitably appears, it’s often accompanied by an audible murmur of mild surprise that slowly gives way to mumbles of acceptance as members of the audience contemplate their own, probably less-than-healthy, mobile phone habits.

Whether or not the science behind the slide is accurate, there is a truth, or perceived truth, within the statement that certainly resonates. In today’s fast-paced world, more and more aspects of our lives are converging on the mobile phone: the singular space where matters can be resolved with a swift swipe and tap. And, having become wedded to a device that provides open access to a near-constant flow of digital distraction, we are left with a nagging sense that this ultra-convenient mobile multi-tasking comes at a cost — and we are paying with our attention.

Digital dependency

Ofcom, the UK media regulator, has revealed the extent of our mobile habit in its latest study, which claims that behaviour in the UK has been transformed by “a decade of digital dependency”. The research found that we check our phones every 12 minutes on average and that two-thirds of those aged 35-and-under check them within five minutes of waking. Nearly three quarters of us (75%) never switch them off.

This connected culture brings clear benefits but, as Ofcom points out, for significant numbers of people there are negative effects. An obvious example is work email encroaching on our social lives, an issue that some companies are looking to address through their employee policies and some countries are looking to tackle head on through regulation.

Another example is the phone’s ability to disturb our sense of being ‘present’. More than half of people (54%) surveyed by Ofcom admitted that connected devices are responsible for interrupting face-to-face conversations with friends and family, underlining how difficult users find it to escape the smartphone’s magnetic pull.

When it descends to the level of addiction (or nomophobia, as it has been labelled), smartphone use becomes not just problematic but dangerous. One Canadian politician has led calls for a ‘Phone Down, Heads Up’ law to address mobile use by inattentive pedestrians and this summer German officials pointed a stern finger at parents fixated on their phones while in the care of children at swimming pools.

Here comes the science bit

Neuroscientists have provided an explanation of what’s causing this attention deficiency in addicted mobile users. In an albeit small sample, researchers from Korea University in Seoul found that, compared with normal users, addicted users had significantly higher levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits neurons and results in poorer attention and control.

Caglar Yildirim, an assistant professor of human computer interaction at State University of New York at Oswego, says in this CNN piece that if you are a medium to heavy multi-tasker, engaging in multiple forms of media simultaneously, you are “basically effectively damaging your ability to be attentive”. A sobering thought.

Mindfulness has emerged as an antidote to our modern distracted state along with the digital detox. Indeed, the summer holiday will have also provided many with a welcome smartphone break — a magazine purchase at the airport serving as a refreshing reminder of the indulgent and absorbing delights of printed media, and a selection of good books serving as hearty nourishment to replenish our attention reserves.

Only, our attention reserves may not actually be in need of any attention.

The jury, it seems, is out on whether our capacity to concentrate has actually been impacted by the advent of the smartphone. Indeed, there are big questions hanging over the very argument behind the goldfish slide.

Welcome distractions

In this version of events, it is not that our ability to pay attention has got any worse — it’s more that distractions, and our appetite for embracing them, have become significantly enhanced.

When it comes to information today, more is definitely more. We have honed our content-processing muscles to optimal fast-twitch performance levels, giving us the capability to flit through multiple, continuous feeds of content and respond to a constant flow of communication in real-time. We scan, scour and rapidly switch our focus across digital tasks, subconsciously hungry for a dopamine reward or anxiously hoping to avoid missing out.

Over time, things will no doubt change as our relationship with the mobile phone evolves. It’s unthinkable that we’ll experience any kind of mass unplugging or disconnection event but we might place more value on thoughtfulness and contemplation (and maybe even quietism) to provide some welcome balance and to safeguard ourselves against phone-frazzle.

We might collectively agree on rules about the right level of attention to apportion to our devices. We might also return more of our attention to non-digital media formats where articles that take a bit longer to read don’t necessarily need to be pre-fixed with a label telling you it’s a ‘long read’.

Who knows. But what’s clear is that a decade of digital dependency has forever reset our communication base levels in terms of the speed and volume of information flow.

So, for the foreseeable future at least, that goldfish slide is here to stay.