Social media narrows collective attention span- study

Crisis stems from a ‘fear of missing out’ on social media and 24-hour breaking news

Scientists have measured for the first time the extent to which the effects of social media and a hectic news cycle have undermined the attention span of humans.

A study in Nature Communications finds our collective attention span is narrowing, and this effect goes beyond social media as it can be seen across diverse domains including books, web searches, and movies.

“Our public discussion can appear to be increasingly fragmented and accelerated. Sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from a “fear of missing out”, keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7,” explained one of its authors, Dr Philipp Hövel, a lecturer for applied mathematics at UCC.

“So far, the evidence to support these claims has only been hinted at or has been largely anecdotal. There has been an obvious lack of a strong empirical foundation,” he added.


The study was conducted by a team of European scientists from UCC; Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the Danish Technical University (DTU). The evidence has been presented in relation to one dimension, known as "social acceleration", namely the increasing rates of change within collective attention.

“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: novelty, ageing and the thirst for something new.” Dr Hövel added.

“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” Dr. Hövel added.

The scientists studied Twitter data; books from Google Books going back 100 years, movie popularity based on ticket sales going back 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the past 25 years. In addition, they gathered data from Google Trends, Reddit and Wikipedia.

When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, the scientists found that peaks “became increasingly steep and frequent”, indicating people are moving on to another topic. In 2013 a hashtag, for example, stayed in the top 50 of most consumed for an average of 17.5 hours. This gradually decreases to 11.9 hours in 2016.

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, he said.

The shortened peak of public interest for one topic is directly followed by the next topic, because of the fierce competition for novelty. “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 which means content is increasing in volume, which exhausts attention and the urge for “newness” causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly, said post-doctorate researcher Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

"Since the available amount of attention remains more or less the same, the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something happening and lose interest more quickly. However, the study does not address attention span of the individual person, said Prof Sune Lehmann of DTU Compute.

“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, pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape, he said. “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,”he noted.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times