The age of the smartphone has led to a generation of people with shorter attention spans as ‘information overload’ makes us get bored more quickly, experts say.
Rapid access to data – whether in the form of social media or round-the-clock news – is leading to increasingly ‘narrow’ peaks of collective attention, they warn.
Scientists studied data on social media posts, online searches, book and movie sales as well as academic studies.
They found that our collective attention span – as demonstrated by peaks of interest in particular topics online, for example – has decreased over the year.
As people are more rapidly made aware of something happening, they tend to lose interest more quickly, experts say.
The findings do not necessarily mean that our individual attention spans have become shorter but this is an avenue for further researcher, they add.
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Information overload is reducing our collective attention span, warns a new study. The huge amount of data readily available through social media and round-the-clock news is leading to increasingly ‘narrow’ peaks of collective attention, according to the findings (stock image)
Scientists studied data on social media posts, online searches, book and movie sales as well as academic studies. This graph shows the average trajectories in top 50 Twitter hashtags from 2013 to 2016, showing a short steep peak in interest
Public discussion can appear to be increasingly fragmented and happen at faster speeds, according to the team of researchers.
Sociologists, psychologists and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis of concentration stemming from a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7.
So far, the evidence to support these claims has only been hinted at or has been largely anecdotal.
The new study shows that our collective attention span really is narrowing and that the effect occurs not only on social media, but also across a range of topics – including books and web searches.
Our need to keep up to date on a range of subjects is beginning to overwhelm our brain’s capacity to focus on multiple items of interest, they suggest.
Professor Sune Lehmann, of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), said: ‘It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.
‘This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example.’
Scientists studied Twitter data from 2013 to 2016 to make the findings.
They also looked at books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years.
They also gathered data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).
The team found evidence of shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item.
They suggest that accelerating changes in popular content are driven by increasing production and consumption of content, and that these changes are not a characteristic of social media itself.
Experts found that our collective attention span – as demonstrated by peaks of interest in particular topics online, for example – has decreased over the years (stock image)
When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, they found that peaks of interest became increasingly steep and frequent.
In 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours but gradually decreased to 11.9 hours in 2016.
Professor Lehmann said: ‘This trend is mirrored when looking at other domains, online and offline and covering different periods.
‘Looking, for instance, at the occurrence of the same five-word phrases, or n-grams, in Google Books for the past 100 years, and the success of top box office movies.
‘The same goes for Google searches and the number of Reddit comments on individual submissions.
‘When looking into Wikipedia and scientific publications, however, this trend was not mirrored.’
Although the exact reason is unclear, the team say that it could be because they are designed to communicate knowledge, rather than entertain.
Research team member doctor Philipp Hövel, lecturer for applied mathematics at University College Cork, said: ‘We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behaviour.
‘Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: hotness, ageing and the thirst for something new.’
Dr Hövel said the model offers an interpretation of their observations. When more content is produced in less time, it exhausts the collective attention earlier.
He explained that the shortened peak of public interest for one topic is directly followed by the next topic, because of the ‘fierce competition’ for novelty.
Dr Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, said: ‘The one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate – the abundance of information.
‘The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for “newness” causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.’
However, experts said the study does not address attention span on the level of the individual person.
Professor Lehmann added: ‘Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing.
‘Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume.
‘Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape.
‘We hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communication systems, such that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates.’
The research was conducted by a team of European scientists from the Technical Universities of Denmark and Berlin, as well as the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and University College Cork.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.