Are We Losing The Plot?

Posted by in February's Magazine

According to recent statistics, Facebook has 2.07 billion monthly active users, Twitter 330 million, Instagram 800 million and You Tube has 1,325,000,000. Meanwhile, in 2013 more than 1.2 billion people were playing computer games, of those, more than 700 million were online games. Then there’s all the time (and money) we spend online shopping and don’t forget the 2.5 million emails that we sent every second, or the 5000 online adverts that flash across our screens daily. That’s a heck of a lot of screen time. Does it matter? Well, according to a bunch of headline grabbing articles, the answer is yes: our daily digital activity is reducing our attention span.


Ten years ago the average attention span was 12 seconds; today it is a mere eight seconds. In other words, one whole second less than a goldfish. Are we losing the plot? Best selling author Robert Harris thinks so. He fears readers lack the attention span to read novels, turning to online streaming and box sets instead. In a recent radio interview, he said, “A box set takes 10 or 12 hours to view, and that’s the same length of time it takes to read a novel …  these series are pretty sophisticated, a lot of them are, it seems to me, in many ways, our modern novel and they’re more central to our culture.”  But is Mr. Harris right? Is the novel doomed? Not necessarily. It turns out that there’s more to our attention span than meets the goldfish bowl.

Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, suggests that the concept of an “average attention span” which increases or decreases is misguided. “Attention span is very much task-dependent and how much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.” She and other scientists like her suggest that to process the myriad of information digitally delivered to us on a daily basis, we’ve become very discerning about what we pay heed to, out of necessity, we have learned to quickly distinguish between information that is of importance to us and that which is not. We have become, in fact, super multi-taskers. Rather than having a reduced attention span we are instead allocating our attention differently. Re-wiring our brain, if you like, to cope.

Mr. Harris’s fears seem unfounded, especially in the light of some of the latest figures released by the Publishers Association. In 2015 the UK publishing industry was in rude good health with total sales of book and journal publishing up to £4.4bn. The figures also revealed for the first time since the invention of the ebook; overall physical book sales increased while digital sales decreased. The novel is alive and kicking and very much a central part of our culture. Let’s face it; there is no reason why we can’t enjoy both watching a box set and reading a novel, though not necessarily at the same time. But, we do well not to be complacent.

One thing we know for sure is that our attention is finite. If not replenished regularly, it runs out. The longer we look at a screen, sifting and sorting through the myriad of digital information bombarding us daily, the more our attention is depleted, making the need to switch off all the more important. Unless we take the time to replenish our depleted attention – by sleeping or going for relaxing walks in woods, for example – the simplest of tasks, such as reading a book, will become more and more challenging. But what’s so difficult about switching off a screen? Turns out to be an awful lot. Advances in research suggest screen time can be addictive. The longer we stay plugged in, the harder it is to turn away. Can anything be done? We don’t know yet but let’s hope so – time and more research will tell. Meanwhile, Matt Richtel, the American writer, and journalist at The New York Times says we need to think of technology in the same way as we consider food:

“Just as food nourishes us, and we need it for life, so too — in the 21st century and the modern age — we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential,” he says. “And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts (by the way, a Twinkie is a golden sponge cake with a creamy filling). And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts.”

Are we losing the plot? No. Not as long as we can learn to distinguish between a tiny green cabbage and a golden sponge cake with a creamy filling. And really, how hard can that be? 

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