Is Technology Shrinking Our Attention Spans?

It’s hard to deny the myriad ways in which technology has helped streamline modern life — we can now easily connect with friends and family across the globe, conduct business from the comfort of our favorite chair, and access a seemingly endless stream of information, no matter the time of day or where we’re located. But the ubiquitous nature of modern technology comes at a cost.

Especially among young people, our attention spans are reportedly shrinking, even when it comes to such concepts as trends. Of course, the idea that technology is impacting attention spans isn’t new, and advocates across numerous industries have been calling for reduced children’s screen time for several years now.

Interestingly, some researchers have concluded that our collective attention span isn’t shrinking but evolving. In a 2018 study of business professionals across all age brackets, researchers determined that our ability to maintain focus has, in fact, improved over time. Yet the study’s respondents are rather selective in the content they choose, typically opting for those with a compelling story and/or visuals.

Where millennials and Gen Zers are concerned, their demographic typically agree that engaging stories and visuals are of primary importance when choosing content. And today’s young people have a mind-boggling amount of content to choose from. For instance, there are more than 31 million channels just on Youtube

So, in a world where technology continues to play an integral role in our daily lives while also altering the ways in which our brains process information, where do we go from here? Are shrinking attention spans simply inevitable, or can something be done to combat our collective decrease in ability to focus? 

The Science Behind Paying Attention

At the very least, it’s abundantly clear that rapidly changing technology affects the human brain in numerous ways. A constant barrage of notifications, for example, triggers stress hormones and elicits our fight-or-flight instincts. What’s more, our memories may be suffering as well. 

When coupled with serious health conditions, including depression, diabetes, and obesity, constant connectivity may frequently result in various types of memory loss. Further, researchers determined that “stress and multi-tasking brought on by the continual presence of technology could have a greater impact on the attention spans of young adults,” according to Medical News Today.

Yet that’s not the entire story, and short attention spans may be indicative of a chronic medical condition, rather than simply a penchant for constant technological stimulation. For instance, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is more commonly diagnosed today than in the past, and the condition causes symptoms that include the inability to pay attention and memory loss. Among children with ADHD, between 75 and 80% find symptom relief with the use of stimulants such as Adderall, and they may also benefit from reduced screen time. 

Technology and Our Brains

Of course, as they’re only used to treat certain conditions like ADHD, stimulants aren’t a viable option for improving our attention spans on a large scale. And there are so-called “natural memory enhancers” marketed as herbal supplements, including ginkgo biloba and ginseng. Also known as nootropics, supplements designed to improve cognitive function and boost memory continue to be tested for efficacy, but are not FDA approved treatment methods as of yet. 

Nootropics provide a fascinating research opportunity, however, to help us access more of our cognitive functioning ability. That potential access to our unconscious brain is directly linked to our memory capacity and the length of our attention spans. 

While promising, however, medications and nootropics are likely to remain only a small piece of a much more expansive puzzle. Perhaps what our brains really need in our constantly connected, buzzing world of technology are peace, mindfulness, and ambient sound. 

Ways to Combat a Shrinking Attention Span

In many cases, having a short attention span or frequent lapses in memory can be painfully obvious. Rather than giving up technology, you may find relief via several hands-on methods, such as digital meditation training or aural stimulation via music that’s specifically tailored to improve cognition. 

For instance, award-winning composer T Bone Burnett recently released an album, “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space,” intended to help combat our fragmented attention spans. In 2019, Burnett told The New York Times that, “I want to create periods of time where people can just sit in pure sound without stimulation, where we can allow ourselves to relax into pure sound.”

But we can’t work towards building up our attention spans until we’re aware of the issue. Once we cultivate that realization, it’s time to work towards improving our behavior and retraining our brains. The methodology may be similar to that of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which seeks to minimize negative behaviors while promoting positive ones. 

Final Thoughts

Only you can decide the right methods for retraining your brain and boosting your attention span. If you truly believe that technology is at the root of your reduced ability to focus and pay attention, consider taking a break from your favorite devices and constant digital stimulation. Otherwise, perhaps a digital meditation program, healthy dose of ambient music, or brain-boosting supplements might provide the fuel you need to improve your cognition while living in balance with modern technology.

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Brooke Faulkner is a mother of two and wilderness enthusiast. When she's not writing, she can usually be found zipping around the mountains on her ATV.

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