Mobile phones are killing our attention spans and ruining public discourse
Information overload, multitasking and soundbite culture have created a world in which nuance is lost and coarse sloganeering prevails
Hello! Hello? Over here! Yes, I’m trying to get you to pay attention. The reason is simple. Apparently, electronic devices are disrupting our brains and making us unable to concentrate.
According to a recent study, we are spending so much time online that we are causing “acute and sustained” changes to the way our brains work.
Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Harvard, Western Australia, Manchester and King’s College London have published a paper in the journal World Psychiatry, warning that increased use of the internet and “digital distractions” are leading to “decreased verbal intelligence” among children and “cognitive offloading” among adults.
Essentially, that means we no longer remember many things because they are stored online. I am guilty. I used to remember several dozen-telephone numbers that I called frequently – friends, relatives, work. Now, while I do remember my own mobile number, that is all. I do not remember my landline or the numbers of close relatives, because my phone does that for me.
One of the authors of the report says that “high levels of internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain”. He cites the “limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the internet” which “encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention, which then may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a task”.
A constantly divided attention span is great for multitasking, but that idea has always seemed a bit daft to me. My own experience of multitasking seems to mean that it is possible to do several different jobs at once, if you are prepared to do them all pretty badly.
Another report from the US reinforces internet use as the cause of the biggest change in our leisure behaviour. The research group eMarketer claims that average American TV viewing time stands at 3 hours 35 minutes a day, while mobile phone usage has risen to 3 hours 43 minutes.
If you add up the figures of TV viewing, plus mobile phone use, that means the average American is watching a screen for just over seven hours a day. If they sleep for eight hours, bathe, dress, eat, do some shopping and chores, how are they doing anything creative, socialising, playing sport or pursuing hobbies?
Of course, sticking with the idea of multitasking, they could well be watching TV, cooking, eating and lying in the bath, all while playing on their phones.
We live in an attention-deficit-disordered world, where we can no longer hold one thing in our heads for any length of time
Still, however these figures are arrived at, the picture is of an information-overloaded, attention-deficit-disordered world, with so many things beeping, flashing and pinging that we can no longer hold one thing in our heads for any length of time.
Maybe this explains why some political leaders – Donald Trump, for example – are successful. He connects with millions by grabbing their attention in a way they can handle. Where politicians once needed to make a coherent and convincing speech, now all they need is a tweet or a picture on Instagram. It’s changing our world.
A few years ago, Megan Foley, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University wrote a paper on soundbites, the little clips of speeches or interviews by politicians on US TV.
She argued that “from the 1960s to the late 1980s the place of oratory in US public discourse was shrinking – literally. In 1968 the average soundbite in US presidential election news coverage was more than 43 seconds long. In 1972 it dropped to 25 seconds. In 1976 it was 18 seconds; in 1980 12 seconds; in 1984 just 10 seconds.”
Since 1988, the soundbite average appears to be roughly between 7 and 9 seconds. That means no time for an argument or a policy, but just enough for a slogan – “Make America great again”, “Drain the swamp”, “Let’s take our country back”.
Many people have come up with ideas as to why populism is on the rise worldwide. Economic discontent, cultural divisions, migration and other factors have all been cited. But maybe the real answer why Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini and others do well at the polls is less to do with their messages than their use of media.
Donald Trump was a reality TV star. Nigel Farage has a show on a British radio station. Boris Johnson and Matteo Salvini are both journalists and accomplished broadcasters. They are all skilled at grabbing attention and at crafting short, sharp messages: tweets, Instagram selfies, short video clips, are all part of the mix. Long speeches and policy documents simply do not cut through.
According to various reports, as well as angrily posting on social media, Mr Trump manages to watch between four and eight hours of television a day, mainly concentrating on shows that talk about him.
Of course, he has strenuously denied this – on Twitter. Welcome to the presidency of digital distractions.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: June 10, 2019 02:45 PM