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Attention is our brain’s filter. The world is a complicated place and our brain can only process a limited amount of stuff at any one time. Attention is our way of focusing on what is important or relevant – what we want to see, feel, hear or think about. And it blocks out everything else so that we are not interrupted.

Right now, you are hopefully attending to what you are reading. You don’t notice the noises around you or the feeling of the chair on your back and bum. But now I’ve mentioned it… you can. I directed your attention to things that you were previously filtering out.

It’s True – Our Attention Spans are Shrinking

Yes, there is a lot of evidence that our attention spans are shrinking. This comes from a range of research including how much time we spend on websites, reading articles, and how long we can attend to a task without getting distracted. Why is this happening? Well, all our abilities need to be trained and exercised. When it comes to our brain, ‘use it or lose it’ is essential. And in today’s fast-paced and overly stimulated world, we no longer spend much time focusing on just one task. We are trying (and failing) to multitask – and then there are the devices like smartphones and laptops that are constantly distracting us with notifications.

What Effect Does this Have on Individuals, Families, and Society?

The big problem with this decrease in attention span is that we no longer focus on a single task. To learn; we need to focus and attend to the one thing. If our attention is constantly flicking from one task to another, then learning and understanding are negatively affected. This means we aren’t taking time to connect with family and friends, we no longer take the time to understand what someone is saying or how they are feeling. From a societal point of view, this means we are
not spending the time needed to understand important issues or appreciate different viewpoints.

Who’s Most Affected?

Unfortunately, everyone is affected by this, but children and teens tend to be more susceptible. The frontal lobes of our brain are involved in controlling our attention – and these areas are not fully functional until about 25 years of age! Anyone under the age of 25 is likely to be more affected by the constant barrage of distraction. Also, the early years are when we learn and develop this crucial ability of attention. If you never get the chance to hone this important skill, then later in life this ability will be compromised.

What Can We Do About It?

It comes down to ‘use it or lose it’! Slow down and concentrate on one task at a time. Devices are extremely good at capturing your attention so spending time away from your phone is important. The way they capture our attention is via the notifications – turning them off can make a big difference. Also, doing something that slows you down like reading a book (paper version) is a great way to exercise your attention. Meditation can also help (although again, away from a device is better). And please, limit gaming. Video games and apps are designed to capture your attention and drive you to crave fast-paced, overstimulated situations that affect your attention.

While attention is negatively affected by our current environment, we can improve our attention with some very simple changes.

Learn more about the effect smartphones are having on us by tuning into Episode 119 of the PakMag Parents Podcast with Dr Mark Williams joining Bree.

Dr Mark Williams

Dr Mark Williams is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Macquarie University with more than 20 years’ experience in research and teaching, and 70+ publications. Mark has studied how we interact with each other, how we learn and how we think. In addition to his teaching and research work at Macquarie University, Mark now runs programs for schools, parents, businesses and individuals to address the many problems that technologies (like smartphones) are creating.