Even though our brains are designed to function in a chaotic world, focusing on just one issue at a time is becoming a greater challenge.
In 2013, United Kingdom-based National Centre for Biotechnology Information found that the explosion of social media use had caused the average human attention span to drop from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds in 2013.
Now in 2021, super apps like Instagram, WeChat, and TikTok have upped the ante on social complexity in our day-to-day lives. Even though these technologies have improved life for billions of people, balancing them with other aspects of our lives is increasingly vital.
Children are especially vulnerable to the perils of an oversaturated technology environment. Psychologists believe that attention spans in children as young as 4 are reliable indicators of literacy and math skills later in life.
Tech-related behaviors, such as mindlessly scrolling through endless Instagram posts or watching a movie on our phones, are linked to trouble recalling information and having interrupted attention spans.
Researchers from Stanford University found that these behaviors affect our episodic memory. Their study compared people’s self-reported levels of media multitasking with their scores in memory tasks in participants aged 18 to 26. Episodic memory is used to conjure or explicitly state events that occur in our daily lives. Along with semantic memory, which is more conceptual, it is a critical component of mental health performance.
Study subjects were presented with images of objects on a computer and asked later to recall if they had seen those images earlier. Eye tracking technology and EEG tests were used to monitor when their attention started to wander.
The study pointed to a direct correlation between multitasking and impeded episodic memory. Research lead Professor Kevin Madore had this to say:
Our data supports the idea that we should be aware of how we engage with media. I think conscious awareness of attentiveness and limiting potential distractions can go a long way in memory preparedness and reducing mind wandering or mind blanking. Resisting media multitasking during school lectures or work Zooms, or limiting media multitasking to set times, could be valuable. Media multitasking is becoming more prominent. We don’t actually know anything about the effects yet.
In today’s pandemic-restricted world, online tasks are increasingly filling our time. Much of what we do, both professionally and socially, would be made more difficult without the use of social media. It is how we decide to use the time that seems to matter. With so many emerging technologies woven into the fabric of daily life, we have yet to fully realize the effects of using this technology so impulsively and without discipline.