The price of your device

Use of technology has affected our ability to concentrate, with a study claiming that goldfish now have longer attention spans than humans

There is evidence that our brains become used to checking a device every few minutes and find it hard to remain focused on a task even when not interrupted by digital messages. Photograph: Thinkstock

There is evidence that our brains become used to checking a device every few minutes and find it hard to remain focused on a task even when not interrupted by digital messages. Photograph: Thinkstock


Technological devices are very much part of our everyday lives, at home, work and school.

There are great benefits of access to information, increased engagement with the academic curriculum and supportive technology for students with developmental difficulties. Web-surfing has been shown to be beneficial to older people’s brain health. Videogames and other screen media improve visual-spatial abilities.

However, there is also a growing body of research evidence that technology can also have a more negative influence on areas of attention and learning.

With the increasing use of this technology by our children and in education particularly, it is essential that we are aware of the issues and possible adverse effects in order to attempt to counterbalance these.

Attention span

Your attention span is the length of time that you can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. Being able to maintain attention and focus on a task for a sustained time period, and not be distracted by other stimuli, enables us to learn, think deeply and achieve our goals. However, there has been a sustained attack on our attention by the myriad of devices that surround us throughout our daily lives.

A recent study carried out by Microsoft concluded that people are more distracted in the presence of devices with screens, and that attention spans have diminished significantly since 2000, attributing this to our use of technology.

This study attracted attention as it claimed that goldfish now have a longer attention span than humans!

Our brains have a built-in biological need to be social and crave connection with others, resulting in distractions caused by frequent urges to check in to social media, such as Facebook. When we are interrupted by text messages or email, it takes approximately 20 minutes to get back to where we were on the original task before the interruption. This means that multiple interruptions over a few hours of work or study prevents the best use of our time and opportunities to learn, or think deeply and creatively to solve problems.

There is evidence that our brains become used to checking a device every few minutes and find it hard to remain focused on a task even when not interrupted by digital messages. We even experience “phantom text syndrome” when we think we hear a text or alert that has not actually happened. All of this can cause us to spend much of our time “on high alert” or in “fight/flight” mode which is very stressful for us and certainly interferes with our ability to focus and pay attention.

Children who exceed two hours per day of screen time are more likely to display attention problems. Playing video games is especially linked to a greater risk of developing attention problems.

Researchers have found that younger people are especially likely to display addiction-like behaviours in relation to their technological devices, such as frequent checking of phones, using portable devices when watching TV, and reaching for a device as soon as nothing else is occupying their attention.

Brain studies have shown changes in the neural reward systems of young video gamers similar to those found in alcoholics and drug abusers.

Reading behaviour

Research analysing reading behaviour in the digital environment has shown that decreases in sustained attention are increasingly characterising people’s literacy skills and habits.

Studies show that readers of real books comprehend more, remember more and learn more. People who read digital material frequently display “power browsing” and scanning rather than read in a deep, absorbed way that facilitates better comprehension, learning and retention of information.

Reading online and using e-readers exposes us to hypertext. This often serves to distract and overload our working memory, resulting in poorer learning and understanding of what we are reading. In addition, scrolling up and down disrupts reading and reduces understanding of the text. The feel of the pages, physical layout of a book and having right- and left-side pages also improves understanding and remembering the information.

Taking notes in class or at lectures with pen and paper rather than a laptop also results in better comprehension and retention of information. This seems to be due to the need for the student to synthesise and summarise in their own words the information as they take notes, as opposed to merely needing to transcribe with shallower processing when using the laptop computer to do so. Dr Alison Rooney is a clinical psychologist.

Ways of reducing the negative impact of our devices

Exercise: Physical activity improves concentration and focus by stimulating brain regions to release chemicals that improve memory and learning. Increasing fitness level also improves attention span.

Drink more fluids: Even mild dehydration can lead to reduced attention.

Put the technology out of reach or switch it off: We need to “digitally detox” regularly. This allows us to reduce stress and anxiety. When we constantly turn to our devices every time we have a break or feel bored, we can actually harm our productivity and creativity. This is due to interfering with “mind-wandering” which allows us find good solutions to challenges by letting our minds drift, during which time our brains continue to work on the problem in the background, often coming up with creative solutions after this process.

Don’t try to multi-task: Work on one task at a time and you will make better progress. We make our best break-throughs when we are focusing intensely on one specific task. Multi-tasking is actually a myth. We are not capable of splitting our attention, but switch our focus rapidly between tasks which saps our attention and it takes us time to get back to where we were on the original task before we were distracted. Multi-tasking with various different devices and digital stimuli is associated with less efficient working of the parts of our brains involved in emotional control, decision- making and willpower.

Meditate: Studies are showing the positive benefits of practices such as mindfulness meditation in improving attention and focus, and strengthening the parts of the brain that are affected by our digital, multi-tasking lifestyles.

Set time-limits for the use of digital devices for you and your children: The recommended guidelines for screen time for children aged three to five years is no more than one hour per day and for children aged five to 18 years, no more than two hours per day of all screen devices, including TV.

Don’t use technological devices within a few hours of bedtime: The “blue” light emitted by many of these causes suppression of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep and wake cycles. Read a real book at bedtime instead.