Our generation has been dubbed Generation M — ‘M’ for multi-taskers, multi-screeners, and info-maniacs. In today’s world, our productivity is defined by our attention. Since the year 2000, the average human attention span has dropped from twelve to eight seconds, which is just one second less than the attention span of a goldfish.
Recently, Microsoft conducted a study researching the impact of digital media multi-screening on our attention spans, speculating that a re-wiring of the brain’s plasticity decreases our ability for prolonged concentration, and increases our desire for novel stimuli.
Microsoft reports that our alternating attention, the ability to shift between tasks, is encouraged by active social media behavior, but to a certain limit. Once the maximal threshold of media usage is surpassed, cognitive resources start to deplete, reducing our capacity to divide attention. Among university students, dividing attention between completely separate tasks is a ubiquitous trend, where study halls are dominated by the glow of laptops and tablets in combination with smartphones.
“Because social media apps are all so easily accessible on the same device, I think my focus decreases then the most because I have so many elements at my disposal,” explained Rotman Commerce student Olivia Hynes. “When I’m multi screening, I am already aware of the fact that I have multiple sources to keep track of, and end up looking back and forth between screens constantly,” agreed Physiology and Nutrition major Stephanie Kim.
Conversely, Microsoft states that multi-screening enables more efficient content processing and encoding to memory. Multi-screeners rapidly skim through content and get the gist while switching smoothly between tasks, simultaneously processing information from different sources. “I would have some type of ‘work’ on one side of my laptop, Facebook on another side, and my phone with a different application like Instagram or messages. I find myself switching my attention from one space to another in one-minute intervals,” Kim explained.
But multi-tasking behavior takes a toll, one that is significantly greater than its perceived benefits. Each time we shift our focus from one activity to another, we pay a cognitive switch-cost, according to a leading expert on divided attention, Dr. Earl Miller. It takes time for the brain to readjust to the pre-distraction task, reducing deep thinking from which true insights originate. “Multitasking always seems like an accomplishment; however, when I reflect back, I realize that those tasks could have been completed to a much higher extent under undivided attention,” explained environmental and urban studies student Harleen Kahlon. “When using social media or even the second before, my brain flips a switch and I’m instantly more excited or more tuned into what I’m looking at. For me, social media provides immediate answers to my questions, like what events are happening this week. But afterwards I find it very hard to regain focus on what I was doing before,” she stated.
Similarly, Kim explains how “after many years, I’ve become quite used to switching my mind between different tasks. It somewhat trains me to think of multiple things at once, although at the same time, it makes me unable to do multiple things well. The interesting thing is that, due to these multi-tasking ‘practices,’ I find it easier to focus when I really need to –— for example, during exams.”
In terms of sustained attention, Microsoft reports that heavy use of digital media grinds away our impact to remain focused in the long run, but leads to more intermittent bursts of high attention in the short term. These short bursts allegedly allow us to better process and retain information; however, this perceived advantage does wither away over time when when we use them for short-term rather than long-term retention.
In fact, a 2011 study found that having immediate access to information online leads to weaker encoding of the actual facts, and stronger retention of how to find them.
In another study, students who were encouraged to use laptops with internet access in their classrooms processed what the lecturer said and scored significantly worse on a test measuring lecture content retention, than those without laptops. “I notice that I can’t help but check my phone for messages or social media updates at least once every 20 minutes. This is especially a problem during lectures,” says Kim.
There have been studies that suggest that when we multi-task, our thinking is shallow — we are not critically thinking. And if you believe practice makes perfect, think again. One study found that chronic media multi-taskers can’t filter out irrelevant information, and are surprisingly less flexible in task-switching than light multi-taskers.
“I like to take a lot of small breaks, and most times these breaks involve social media outlets,” explained Kahlon. “There are certainly times exemplified in my mind has wandered, often times in classroom settings, but social media distractions, when accessible, are certainly more frequent. Social media distractions may even have taken over day dreaming -— something I did a lot more of as a kid,” Hynes added. This supports Microsoft’s finding of multi-screeners’ reduced selective attention — the ability to avoid distraction while concentration on a task.
The frequent switching between activities is reinforced by a dopamine rush, rewarding the brain for seeking alternative stimuli while failing to concentrate. “For me it becomes impossible not to check a notification when I see it, even if it turns out to be Farmville,” Hynes explained. “Because multiple apps are open at the same time, I find myself checking for notifications and new interesting stories constantly,” stated Kim. In addition, the prefrontal cortex is known for having a novelty bias, meaning the very brain region required for prolonged focus is easily distracted by something new.
“I think that the biggest impact social media has had on my ability to switch tasks would be making them longer to finish,” explains Hynes, and numerous studies support this claim. The very devices we depend on to get things done also provide dopamine-fueled instant gratification, delaying task completion and increasing time needed to re-orient and restart the initial task.
Remember, your attention is a selective filter for a reason: to serve you better. When it is bombarded with multiple streams of information, our attention is overwhelmed, processing everything, relevant and irrelevant, and getting the gist -— but not the core — of things.