Our attention spans appear to be in decline, but what role is technology playing in this phenomenon?
Studies have shown that people spend only around 47 seconds, on average, focusing on any given screen before their attention wanders elsewhere.
This finding is among several that have emerged from the research of psychologist Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Mark’s investigations explore the impact digital media is having on our lives.
Her research has found evidence that attention spans appear to be declining. This theme and how we can reclaim our focus are discussed in Mark’s new book Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, which draws on her years of research.
A stock image shows a woman using a smartphone. Gloria Mark’s research has shown that people spend around 47 seconds, on average, focusing on any given screen before their attention wanders elsewhere. iStock
Mark started measuring attention spans back in 2004, using an objective and empirical method to track how long people are focused on any given screen before they look away.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve been using computer logging methods, which gives you precise timestamps of how long people are on any screen,” Mark told Newsweek. “Before that, we actually used to track people with stopwatches. We would just follow them and click.”
In 2004, Mark found that the average amount of time her study participants spent focused on any screen was around two-and-half minutes. By around 2012 this had dropped to 75 seconds. And more recent results indicate even further decreases.
“I noticed that the amount of time on any given screen has been declining,” Mark said. “The evidence is that in the last five years or so they average 47 seconds on any screen. This has also been replicated by others who find very similar kinds of results. I started to realize that this is really a significant problem.”
Mark said she has found a correlation between the frequency of attention switching and stress. In studies, the psychologist has tracked people’s heart rates in the workplace to monitor their stress levels.
“Let me emphasize that when I study people’s attention, I study it in their real-world environments rather than bringing people into a laboratory, which is what most psychologists do,” Mark said. “I prefer to go where people are and see how they’re using devices in their natural habitat. And so, we found this correlation with stress.
“If you do look at laboratory research, and there have been decades of research looking at attention switching—which essentially is multitasking—you find that blood pressure increases as frequency of attention shifting increases.”
Laboratory research and also some studies conducted “in the wild” show that people are more likely to make errors when switching their attention between different activities. This can be explained by a phenomenon known as “switch cost”—which refers to the mental effort it takes to reorient to the new activity.
Mark said there are a number of factors that may be playing a role in our increasing distractibility, and our psychology is just as important a factor as technology.
“People tend to blame tech—saying it’s due to the notifications—or that it’s simply due to a lack of willpower. My argument is much broader than both of those reasons,” Mark said. “Yes, notifications and targeted algorithms do affect our attention. But it’s by no means the full story. For one thing, people are just as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by some external notification or phone call.”
One factor that is an enabler of distraction is the very design of the internet itself, with its “node and link” structure, according to Mark.
“If you know about the history of the internet, it was actually designed to make it very easy for people to find information using this network structure,” Mark said. “The reason is because humans think in terms of associations, and human memory is theorized to be structured as a semantic network.
“So, when you go to a Wikipedia article, there are so many entry points into your mind’s network,” she said. “We’re primed. We think of associations and we’re just compelled to click on links. Sometimes it could be an inner thought that comes up or some urge. And then we search for it on the web and start going on a joyride.”
An individual’s personality also plays a role. Mark said some individuals are better at self-regulating than others. Those that are not so good tend to score higher on psychological measures of impulsivity and low in conscientiousness. People who score high in neuroticism also tend to have shorter attention spans, according to Mark.
Furthermore, we are endlessly swayed by desires to maintain social capital and influence, which go hand-in-hand with the way technologies like social media function.
Aside from these factors, the psychologist argues that the broader media environment is reinforcing shorter attention spans.
“For example, film and TV shot lengths have declined to four seconds,” Mark said. “I can’t say that those are causing us to have short attention spans—it could very well be that editors and directors are gearing their material to what they think our attention spans are, or that they are influenced by their own short attention spans. But the point is, it reinforces us.”
A stock image shows a man using a laptop. The broader media environment is reinforcing shorter attention spans, according to research. iStock
Advertisements have also declined in length. Mark said 60-second ads used to be quite common, now it is not unusual to see commercials that last six seconds.
“So, we’re seeing a shortening in other aspects of the media,” Mark said. “Then of course, social media constrains the length of content that you can post. And it is difficult to write long passages while texting. All of these things force us to read things in short snippets.”
“This broader media colludes to reinforce us in having short attention spans. And of course, the sources of interruptions just keep increasing with all the new technologies out there,” she said.
Marks said she thinks some amount of conditioning may be a factor in explaining the observed increases in attention switching.
When most people think of interruptions, they think only of external distractors—notifications, ads, text chimes, phone calls, people coming into their office, among others. But Mark’s research shows that people are just as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by something external.
“We looked at our data in terms of external interruptions, which means interruptions that come from some outside source like a notification or phone call,” Mark said. “We also looked at what we call internal interruptions, or self-interruptions. That’s defined as when you suddenly interrupt yourself and there’s no apparent external reason for that.”
For example, a person might suddenly stop working on a Word document and turn to check email or pick up their phone.
“The statistical pattern of the data showed that when a person’s external interruptions declined, then people increased their self-interruptions in the next hour,” Mark said. “My interpretation for the reason for this is that people are accustomed to being interrupted. If a person doesn’t receive an external interruption within a certain period, then they self-interrupt.
“That’s what I mean by conditioning. We interrupt ourselves to maintain that pattern of interruptions. It is of course reflected in our short attention spans.”
These conditioned self-interruptions, as well as external interruptions, are a factor in the declining figure that Mark has observed regarding the number of seconds people hold their focus on any given screen, she said.
The proliferation of social media, and other technologies that are designed to grab our attention, simply provide more opportunities for people to self-interrupt, as well increasing the potential sources of external distractions.
So, what can we do to reclaim our attention? Mark said she believes people can develop their own agency to help improve their focus.
“We can become more intentional and self-aware of our automatic activities. The point is to make automatic activities more conscious for us,” Mark said. “You can do this by probing yourself. So right before I check the news or social media, I can ask myself, why do I need to do that? Am I bored? Is this a hard task? You become more self-aware and you learn reasons for why you’re doing things. The more you do this, the more it becomes second-nature. This can help you become more intentional in your actions.”
“We can also gain agency by practicing what’s called forethought, which means imagining your future self,” Mark said. “If I’m going to go on social media for 30 minutes, then what’s my day going to look like at 10 p.m.? Am I still going to be working on my book chapter or my deadline? Or will I be relaxing and watching my favorite show?”
Other measures could include changing your screen environment, closing tabs, hiding your favorite social media apps or stopping unnecessary notifications.
But the psychologist said reclaiming our focus is not just an individual problem—addressing our declining attention spans will require changes at the collective level.
“I don’t think any individual can simply pull out and detox. It only penalizes that individual,” Mark said. “Companies can have policies where they restrict the window of time when email is sent, for example. I’m also a great advocate of right to disconnect laws, which we see in places like France and Ireland. Right to disconnect can help people detach from work.”
And rather than unplugging from our phones and other devices, the psychologist pointed to some surprise benefits technology could bring.
“I also believe that technology, ironically, can play a role as well, in terms of creating smart personal assistants that can coach us to have better attention behaviors,” she said. “It won’t do the work for us but will help us learn what we need to do so we can have a better relationship with our devices.”