An ode to the loss of my attention span
The collective loss of our attention span has become somewhat of a running joke within my friendship circle. We like to trace it back to or, perhaps more correctly, blame it on the pandemic and the coping mechanism that was TikTok. With the 60-second format and the never-ending stream of new content, new creators and new viral trends at our fingertips, paired with nothing to do but staying inside all day, the game was rigged. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right? But, in all seriousness, the loss of my attention span is no joke and TikTok is not a lone villain.
In truth, TikTok’s format is simply a symptom of the never-ending fight for our attention. This fierce battle is not even limited to social media considering that every webshop, search engine, streaming media and news site want you to stay with them for as long as possible. And they are not afraid to do everything in their power to ensure you do so. You could argue it’s not personal, it’s just business, but the two are impossible to separate when there are dire consequences for the user they profit off.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 2022 has seen yet an attention span drop, the average being 8,25 seconds, which is strikingly 4,25 seconds less than what it used to be at the turn of the millenium. Many have drawn a comparison to the goldfish which now surpass humankind with a 9 second attention span. Meanwhile, the average user picks up their phone more than 1,500 times every week and almost four in ten admit feeling lost without their gadgets, according to a study conducted by marketing agency Tecmark.
Despite these chilling statistics, be careful before you place too much blame on yourself. After all, our psychology has been used against us with every invention designed to snatch our attention. Let’s use push notifications as an example. While it was not an Apple invention, it was this company that popularized it thanks to its 2009 iPhone update. Facebook had launched as an app one year prior, Instagram would launch the following year, and the alert system worked like a charm as new apps continued to roll out. As time went on, push notifications became the norm, and we have learnt to recognize every ping, buzz and ding as a cue to pick up the phone.
“We live in a time where being present seems mystical or even radical.”
12 years have passed since notifications went mainstream and we have arrived at the point where there even is a term for the perception that the phone is vibrating when it is not – phantom vibration syndrome. Alerted by the sound, we are desperate to uncover why. Is it an email about my job application? A text from my wife? Breaking news I can’t miss? Or maybe a new comment on my latest post? For better or for worse, push notifications are a source of excitement and we are so accustomed to them that “the slightest muscle twitch or feeling of clothing moving could be wrongly interpreted as phone vibration,” according to WebMD.
“It sends our brain into overdrive, triggering anxiety and stress, and at the very least, hyper-vigilance, which is meant to protect ourselves from predators, not the phone,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed psychologist and professor at Columbia University, told Bustle. As harmless as they may seem, notifications are oftentimes stress-inducing and the urge to check our notifications can feel overpowering. Simultaneously, due to dopamine, these alerts offer a loop of pleasure that keeps us coming back for more. “It’s similar to feeling gratified, such as feeling a rush of winning at a slot machine, or eating a chocolate cake,” Hazeef stated in the interview. “The brain does not differentiate where the reward comes from, but the dopamine triggered reinforces the behavior the same way.”
Aside from being a source of stress, the addictive nature of notifications is a disruptive element in our everyday life. We live in a time where being present seems mystical or even radical, as push notifications are just one of the many ways that modern technology takes away our focus from daily tasks, conversation flows and thought streams. Likes, comments, tagging, mentions, shares, pop-ups, bells and never-ending refreshing are all features designed to bid for our attention and keep us distracted. One Forbes article even goes as far as referring to notifications as “The Death Of Thinking”. The writer, Dan Pontefract, calls for action when warning: “Leaders need both the time and white space to think. If every morsel of time is occupied not only are poor decisions made, new ideas are never born.”