A buffet of distractions to feed our short attention spans

I think it’s pretty safe to say, based off personal experiences and the flood of research on the topic, that our attention spans are getting shorter. There are too many distractions nowadays to keep the same level of attention that was most likely experienced 10 years ago. When our attention wavers, we reach for our mobiles. So when we are tempted with a buffet of devices to feed our short attention span, can we really be blamed for getting a little bit distracted? If I’m being completely honest, I’ve reached for or looked at my phone after finishing each sentence in this introduction. It’s a serious issue.

To delve a tiny bit into this concept of attention spans, I asked a friend of mine who I attend most of my lectures with to count how many times I check my phone during one of our weekly lectures. I asked her to not tell me which lecture out of the 3 we attend together she would be watching me in and I also asked her to not make it obvious that she is watching or counting. Whilst a very small and relatively unreliable experiment, I just wanted to get a rough understanding of how often I get distracted when I should be concentrating. Correspondingly, there has been quite a bit of conjecture recently around the effectiveness of lectures and whether they deserve a place in university education. Perhaps the design of this experiment is evidence enough of how little attention is given to lectures: my friend could literally spend an entire lecture watching me get distracted and it didn’t bother her at all.
Moving on, the biggest flaw in this experiment I thought would be the fact that I was aware I was being watched. But surprisingly, after half an hour of a marketing lecture that makes no sense to you, you forget about everything and only focus on the world of Facebook, which is good because that happened to be the lecture she decided to watch me in. Embarrassingly, and worryingly for that matter, I looked at my phone approximately 56 times over a 2 hour period, whether that meant just clicking a button to see if I had any new notifications, or picking up my phone for a longer amount of time. After my friend told me that number, I had a think about what I would be touching my phone for. Since my friend was somewhat trying to pay attention and also not make it obvious that she was watching, she rarely saw what I was actually doing on my phone, so it was up to my conscious mind to remember what subconscious zombie ash does on her phone during lectures. Most of my time I think was spent responding to messages or emails, followed closely by Facebook and Instagram scrolling, endlessly refreshing trying to find something new, like looking in the fridge for a second time even though you know there’s nothing good in there. But after looking at my phone Internet history, I actually spend time doing things that I need to do (yes, I need to shop), but shouldn’t be doing in a lecture – things like submitting my work timesheets, shopping, researching holiday details and looking for things to do this weekend.

Even though this was just a small experiment, it is undoubtedly clear that we are surrounded by distractions and perhaps before the time of personal devices we had much longer attention spans – however I’m sure people found ways to get distracted during school long before iPhones.


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