Does being online destroy our attention? Have our attention spans been declining?

What I’ve read on the topic says "Not really". More specifically:

First, there’s that SMTM post (published as part of their Mysteries contest and actually written by this person). What do we learn from this one? 
First, there are various kinds of attention: sustained attention, the ability to keep your mind on a specific task for about 10 minutes [no one knows where the "10 min" comes from]; selective attention, the ability to resist distractions that pop up while you’re focusing on something (yes, the gorilla thing); and divided attention, the ability to multitask. But we also learn that "attention span" isn’t  really a constant the way, say, Dunbar’s number is supposed to be, but is instead very task-dependent. We also learn that all existing research on attention spans is pretty terrible. But, according to a couple of those terrible studies: sustained attention is (read "might be". Terrible study.) a little worse in young people and people who are online a lot. Selective attention maybe is lower maybe not, and divided attention (multitasking) is ("might be") actually better in young people and people who are online a lot. According to other studies, the time spent on a given website, or the time a hashtag stays popular, have fallen. Which may or may not have much to do with what we’re actually interested in, and, like the multitasking thing, may or may not actually be a problem (is it that we can’t stay focussed, or that we’re better at prioritising tasks and shifting from one to the other?). Apparently, some better-quality research also tells us that the length of each shot in films or TV commercials has declined. I’m not sure whether to see it as proof that we’re now more interested in faster-paced stuff because our attention is worse, or if the greater availability of faster-paced stuff overwhelms us in some way and contributes to making us think our attention spans have declined whether or not it actually is the case, or something else entirely. In any case, people certainly believe attention spans have been declining, but we knew that already. So, there aren’t masses of convincing evidence either way here. The author of that blog post gives ≈65% to the hypothesis that there’s been a decline in the last couple decades.

More information on the topic is provided in an episode of The Studies Show podcast (which is, imho, a very cool podcast). They don’t seem too convinced either. I won’t dig too much into details here, since the main idea is that there are no or very few good studies on the topic, and the researchers who do find something are often quick to admit that the effect is too small to conclude much. Also, you should go and listen to that podcast, it’s very good. However, I simply cannot move on without linking to this great study they discuss: basically, the point is that, while anyone measuring how much time we spend online phrases it as some variation on "how bad is our X addiction, actually?", it’s not because we really want to spend a lot of time doing something that doing this thing is bad, especially when said thing is "chatting with friends", online or offline. But that doesn’t say much about our attention span. Once again, it’s not clear where the decline we think we see comes from.

At this point, I should say a word on why I’m thinking about this question in the first place. Some months ago, I went to see my therapist, and said something like "I can’t get my brain to think about stuff without daydreaming instead, I’m shit at prioritising tasks, I’m always bored, I have trouble putting myself to work, etc., etc…. I’m sure I have ADHD". She nodded, unconvinced. And, after digging deeper into that stuff, it has now been established that, no, I don’t have ADHD (and that my therapist is great). Instead, I just have a good ol’ ASD (see here, here, here, or here, on how close and overlapping these two disorders are). The reason I’m talking about that is because it helped me see how attention isn’t all of what we usually put under that name in ordinary conversation (Notice how the title of this post is about our "ability to get sh*t done" rather than about "attention"?). 

I don’t want to claim that the people who answer surveys and say "yes, my attention span is massively worse than it was 20 years ago" are confused about what they mean, when it’s perhaps more likely that I’m the one who is confused. But it doesn’t really make sense to me. When I was suspecting ADHD in myself, I thought that the struggles I had were something to do with attention and ability to focus: I can’t muster up enough grit to get my homework done in time, because I can’t stay focussed on doing it instead of something else, damnit! But, in fact, "general ability to get sh*t done", and its many sub-components, are more like what is usually called "executive function" (and executive function is bad both in people with ADHD and in people with ASD, hence me). The way the specific attention deficit which characterises ADHD is measured is by doing something like the Stroop test (where you have to say "red" if "RED" is written on the piece of paper in from of you, even if it’s confusingly written in blue letters). That sort of thing tests whether one is able to maintain the intellectual effort needed to give the right answer for the full ten minutes or so that the tasks lasts. Because that’s basically what sustained attention is.

And… I’m not too sure why being online a lot would make that worse? When I fail to prevent myself from watching a couple seasons of my favourite series on Netflix instead of doing useful work I want to do, there’s a problem. But how is it an attention problem? I just spent five hours very intently focused on Netflix! Even, like, right now, myself: I have work to do today. Instead, I’ve been writing this post for the last two hours. It’s an issue! But if it was an attention issue, would I have spent the last two hours typing without stopping? (Wouldn‘t I, instead, have temporarily shifted my attention to my work and started at least part of it?).

So, I’m not sure there’s an attention problem at all, and maybe we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way.

Of course, the fact that I started thinking about this whole can of worms because of my executive function issues suggests that maybe I’m confusing my problems and other people’s. Maybe most people really do struggle with attention and think it’s because of the screens (but that would be weird, since research on attention decline is inconclusive, as we’ve seen). Still, my opinion on the matter is that, if the screens do something to our ability to get stuff done (and it sure sounds like that’s the case, but again maybe that’s just a "me" thing), it’s more to do with our executive function than with our attention.

[What follows is both speculative and poorly thought-out. Proceed with caution, if at all.]

And, last but not least, the thing that reminded me this morning that I wanted to write on this topic, now relegated to post-scriptum status since it‘s even more speculative than the rest: Scott Alexander, as well as other people whose names I can’t remember just yet (sorry!), said something about fiction, and especially about the sort of fantasy fiction that is now relatively more widespread than in the past. Scott’s point is that, while things like James Bond films create a fantasy of competence (= it makes you daydream about being really strong, really good at picking up hot women, and uncommonly able to defeat scary villains), "every part of the fantasy universe is optimized to justify why a person with no special ability or agency can save the world". You don’t save the world because you’re really good at inventing weapons or dealing with the logistics of raising an army, you save the world because you’re the hidden son/daughter of the king, and also you can do magic.

Now, of course, if I said "it’s because we read fantasy now! Our culture tells us we just have to wait for things to get themselves done by magic, so we don‘t do stuff, and we daydream instead!", I will sound like an idiot, and an old fart. Besides, James Bond’s fantasy of competence isn’t that far removed from the kind of fantasy where you’re the magical dude who can save the world without much specific agency of your own, right? It doesn’t make us dream that we have magic, it makes us dream that we have a boatload of money and a sports car with weapons hidden inside it (which is basically magic on four wheels). Still, the reason I’m mentioning that thing at all is because I wonder: maybe the fact that we are (probably?) a lot more exposed today to either James Bond or to fantasy novels,  in other words to stuff where we can vicariously enjoy what a bunch of cool people are doing without having to exert any agency of our own, contributes to a hypothetical deterioration of our executive function? In the past, if you wanted to go dream about being a Middle-earth super-spy, you had to go to a cinema to do it, and it meant exerting at least enough executive function to get off your couch and put on your coat, but not anymore? Or maybe I’m just talking nonsense? 

Anyway, so: I’m curious whether you think there really is a decline in attention? How much sense does my suggestion that maybe it’s more a decline in executive function makes? Is there anything to keep in my weird rambling about how fiction may or may not have changed/become more available in some weird way that makes our executive function worse?

New Answer
New Comment