Your Attention Span Could Now Be Worse Than A Goldfish's

Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
Well, it's finally happened: According to a new Microsoft study, your attention span is finally worse than a goldfish's. And, it might be your phone's fault.

The study, performed by researchers in Canada, involved two phases. In the first one, 2,000 people were surveyed about their tech use, including how much time they spend using social media and how many screens they're typically working with at once. They were also given a few attention-measuring games to play. Then, in the second phase, 112 participants had their brain activity measured with an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they performed memory tasks.

Results showed that, overall, participants' attention spans aren't great: 44% of participants reported having a hard time staying focused, and 45% said they tend to get sidetracked from what they're doing. That kind of sustained attention tends to be worse in younger participants and, as Microsoft points out, those who spend more of their lives consuming media and looking at multiple screens. 

But, participants did better on tasks that measured other kinds of attention. For instance, ability to successfully filter out distractions remained unaffected by age, gender, or the amount of time people spent on the Internet — as long as we stuck to one screen at a time. And, using more than one screen was actually correlated with better scores on "alternating" attention, meaning those participants were able to efficiently switch between tasks and screens.

The brain readings backed this up, too. Participants who were heavy users of social media or who were early adapters of technology were better at applying extreme focus for short bursts of time. But, that advantage nearly disappeared once the attention time span reached 30 seconds. So, the report concludes that our collective attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds in 2013 — one second less than that of the average goldfish.

So, yes, your attention span may be getting worse in some ways, but it's getting better in others. We're probably better off saying our attention's simply changing as we adapt to different kinds of tasks in our lives — tasks, we might add, that a goldfish does not have to deal with. Still, we'd like to see those fish try to navigate TweetDeck.
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