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  • Krisha Janaswamy


- Krisha Janaswamy

Social media is defined as any digital tool which allows users to create and share content with the public quickly. It has been linked to lower attention spans since the existence of such media. Perhaps you have also at some point linked shorter attention spans to your usage of social media. This has often manifested itself in the form of tabloid hysteria, but numerous scientific studies have also addressed the question.

‘The Goldfish effect’ is one such manifestation. The goldfish effect is used to describe people's short attention spans as goldfish are known to have a brief attention span of only 9 seconds. Consequently, the effect emphasises that human beings now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, which is 1 second below the fish. Likewise, a study conducted found that primary school children diagnosed with “internet addiction” scored highly on a scale rating ADHD-like symptoms, while children already diagnosed with ADHD scored high on measures of internet addiction.

Additionally, Instagram, a user favourite, an app that one finds themselves mindlessly scrolling through, is an endless abyss of random photos and videos. Coincidentally, video stories on Instagram are capped at a duration of 15 seconds; pictures in stories are limited at 7 seconds and videos in a regular post to 60 seconds. Psychologists linked this to the research conducted by Microsoft since the year 2000 (the start of the mobile revolution), which supported that the average attention span dropped to 8 seconds.

But thank god for us, an average attention span is very task-dependent. How much attention we pay to a task will vary depending on how demanding the job is. Besides, goldfish can perform all the kinds of learning that have been described of mammals and birds. Which essentially means that the ‘goldfish effect’ is more or less a myth.

Yet, a bigger question remains unanswered: Does social media affect our attention spans?

Yes. Studies have shown that people who immerse themselves in recurrent and extensive media multi‐tasking in their day‐to‐day lives perform worse in various cognitive tasks than those who don’t, particularly for sustained attention. These results are supported by imaging studies which have shed light onto the neural differences which could account for the said cognitive deficits. Structurally, high levels of Internet usage and massive media multi‐tasking are associated with decreased grey matter in the prefrontal cortex (part of the brain involved in memory processes and the ability to concentrate attentively). The regions of the brain related to maintaining goals in the face of distraction are also affected by heavy media multitasking. These regions are the right frontal pole cortex which is the part of the brain that plays a role in non-verbal abilities and the front-most region of the cingulate cortex, which is responsible for several cognitive functions such as empathy, impulse control, emotion and decision making.

Furthermore, the immediate and chronic effects of media multi-tasking are relatively unexplored in children and adolescents, even though they are the prime users of such technologies. They are also at a phase of development that is crucial for refining higher cognitive abilities. However, the first extensive study of media multi‐tasking in children and adolescents, has recently found that frequent multi‐tasking behaviours do predict the development of attentional deficits, specifically in early adolescents, but not in older teens.

Besides, extensive media multi‐tasking during childhood and adolescence could negatively impact cognitive development through indirect means, by reducing engagement in academic and social activities, as well as by interrupting sleep or reducing the opportunity to employ creative thinking.

Nevertheless, a very efficient way to improve your attention span would be to reduce the amount of time spent multitasking on the internet and social media. This activity could mean no phones at the table, swapping a laptop for a book while you relax and only allowing access to one task for a set period.

One encounters endless distractions today. But at the end of the day, as teenagers, it is our responsibility to stay grounded, more so in these uncertain times. Everything in the world around us today exists to exploit consumer behaviour. Humans respond most frequently to reward-associated stimuli when the reward is administered after a varying number of responses. If we perceive a prize to be delivered at random, and if checking for the tip comes at little cost, we end up checking habitually. If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the littlest feeling of boredom. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep us doing precisely that. Only you can help yourself come out of this dopamine-driven cycle. What choice will you make?

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