Are you finding it hard to focus?
Congratulations on making it this far!
In a world of social media and smartphones, it can feel like our attention is being pulled in every direction, all of the time.
But is this daily digital smorgasbord actually impacting our ability to focus — or that of our children?
There’s a statistic that get bandied round a lot: that since 2000, our attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to eight.
As someone who’s spent years studying human attention, I can tell you it’s nonsense.
But it’s also an overly simplistic way of looking at a much more complex phenomenon.
What actually is attention?
Attention isn’t just about what you’re focusing on, it’s equally about what you’re filtering out.
It’s your gateway to learning, helps you control your behaviour, and underpins the development of cognitive skills like memory.
Attention is controlled by a series of distinct yet overlapping neural circuits — the attention network.
It’s commonly split into three areas:
- Selective attention refers to your ability to focus on important information and ignore irrelevant or distracting stuff around you. Imagine a conversation with a friend in a busy restaurant: you’re picking up one voice and disregarding all other superfluous information.
- Sustained attention is all about how long we can pay attention for. It’s what we typically think of as our attention span: how long you can read a book, listen to a lecture, or pretend to be interested in your partner’s explanation of why New Zealand should have won the cricket world cup.
- Executive attention (or attentional control) involves more complex processes like the ability to switch or divide your attention between tasks — cooking dinner whilst having a phone conversation, for instance. It also helps stop us from behaving impulsively.
How is our attention changing?
Your attention waxes and wanes throughout the course of the day and varies depending on the task you are completing, the environment you are in, and whether you have consumed stimulants like coffee.
Your current mindset can also affect what you pay attention to and what you filter out.
If you’ve recently split up with a partner, for example, all you seem to notice for the next few weeks, and months (hopefully not years) are happy couples.
Yet, after a period of time, the high proportion of happy couples seems to taper off.
So, trying to assess whether our attention span — one aspect of attention — has declined over the course of a decade isn’t really a useful or testable question.
What’s more likely is that your attention has adapted to meet the needs of your environment: an environment that is rife with choice and demand you to juggle multiple tasks at one.
ADHD is on the rise — but why?
Rates of clinical attention difficulties, however, are on the rise.
In Australia, around 1 in 20 children experience Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.
Described by some as like being a cat in a room with 100 laser pointers, ADHD is characterised by high levels of inattention and/or hyperactivity.
It’s one of several developmental disorders in which people have difficulties paying attention.
By some accounts, the number of individuals with ADHD has risen dramatically in the past decade.
In the US, the Centre for Disease Control reports a 42 per cent increase in ADHD diagnoses from 2002 to 2012, with 6.1 million children diagnosed with ADHD as of 2016.
Given the steady increase in the use of digital tools in our everyday life, is digital technology to blame for this rise?
According to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, high school students who use digital media more than twice a day — texting, streaming TV or checking social media — had slightly increased odds of experiencing symptoms of ADHD.
But is it compelling evidence that increased digital media use leads to increased attention difficulties? In short, no.
The researchers can’t be sure whether digital media use exacerbates ADHD behaviours, or whether those with ADHD behaviours are more likely to engage with digital media.
Of the 2,587 students, 81 per cent used digital media more than twice a day, yet only 6-7 per cent reported symptoms of ADHD.
Importantly, ADHD has a strong genetic basis and symptoms are often present prior to digital technology use, meaning this type of media can’t trigger the onset of a complex developmental disorder.
Instead, better awareness from parents, educators and healthcare professionals, as well as broader diagnostic criteria, means we’re much better at identifying children with attention difficulties.
Digital tools as a friend or foe
People experiencing attention difficulties are typically treated with psychostimulant medication.
It’s often very beneficial, and is most effective when combined with other cognitive or behavioural interventions.
But for some people, treatment options are limited. This is especially the case for those who live in remote areas, experience medication side effects, respond poorly to medication, or face language, physical or developmental barriers.
Despite usually being seen as part of the problem, digital tools offer the potential to deliver non-pharmacological interventions to all, regardless of geographic location.
They can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach.
Digital technology is already used extensively in healthcare to assist in diagnosis, treatment and ongoing support, and its potential is now being harnessed within educational settings.
It is crucial to shift the focus on digital technology from being purely about the quantity of information we are exposed to, but rather the quality of information we are consuming.
Digital media may not in itself be inherently bad, but rather the time spent using entertainment-based digital media detracts from time spent on learning or leisure activities.
Rest assured we are still more than capable of sitting down for lengths of time to read a book, work on projects, complete hobbies … and get to the end of articles about attention.
Dr Hannah Kirk is a developmental neuroscientist at Monash University and NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow developing digital tools to detect and treat childhood attention difficulties. She is also one of the Top 5 scientists for 2019.