This new WhatsApp feature is a reminder that our capacity to concentrate has hit rock bottom

Feb 27, 2017, 07:15 IST | Janaki Viswanathan

While our attention span hasn’t dropped to goldfish standard, a recently introduced feature on WhatsApp is another reminder that our capacity to concentrate has hit rock bottom

We are subjected to an excessive bombardment of information. Imaging/Ravi Jadhav

Earlier last week, WhatsApp launched a new feature that lets users send status messages as a photograph or video, which gets deleted after 24 hours. Soon, you can expect an hourly uploadable-deletable ‘status’ in keeping with diminishing attention spans. Psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria and clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta believe reduced attention spans are a reality built over the past decade. The cause is addiction to gadgets with one thing in common: screens. The light emitted from any screen causes an addiction, while also distracting users. Contradictory? Not really.

Anjali Chhabria

The art of distraction
Diminished attention spans are mostly seen between the ages of two and 45. Mayuri Gopalkrishnan, executive director of a Mumbai-based learning academy, clarifies that children typically have low attention spans, but it is more so now because of novel teaching methods that involve puppets and pictures. She agrees that access to screens have influenced them as well. "I tell new teachers that they’re competing with an animated feature on a smartphone or tablet," she says.

While toddlers and young children may not have free access to screens, teenagers and adults do, and it shows. Chhabria recalls an experiment she conducted during a workshop for 17 to 18-year-old students. They were given a break and observed during that time. "Each student checked his/her phone nearly every 30 seconds to one minute, even if not beeping."

Sonali Gupta

Gupta feels there is also an excessive bombardment of information to the cognitive senses, reducing our focus. Earlier, reading was limited to a physical book or newspaper. "These days, if you read one article on any device, several links pop up; that distracts you," she adds. She sees an average of 10 clients a month who say they can’t concentrate, or haven’t read a book in years. "In addition to apps that provide instant news, there are also apps that offer summaries for books," says Gupta. So, we hoard information, but can’t claim to have knowledge.


KV Sridhar

Width vs depth
Ad guru KV Sridhar calls this the depth of engagement, which he feels has reduced drastically. "A 10-minute video can claim to have a million views, but delve into it and you’ll realise that nearly 50 to 60 per cent viewers switched to something else within the first 15 seconds, and not even five per cent watched it to the end," he explains. Sridhar feels that while social media has increased the width of our information, the depth of our knowledge has fallen. Since screens provide gratification with a mere click or swipe, one has become a lot more impatient, distracted. We’d rather skim through several topics than read about one.

One could argue that knowing a little about everything isn’t so bad, but Gupta feels most of the information we access these days is ultimately useless. Thus our capacity for activity, productivity and efficiency reduces a great deal. "We need to read the same thing several times to understand it. And the most innovative ideas emerge from boredom, which doesn’t exist any more," she says. Lesser attention spans also lead to impatience, sleep deprivation and anger spurts.

Gupta says that maybe we’ve gone down a rabbit hole; she is unsure what may pop up on the other side. Sridhar says advertisers and content creators are tapping controlled environments like a plane or train journey, by creating finite content that can be watched without external distractions. For instance, content that lasts exactly as long as the Churchgate-Virar commute.

The difference: ADHD and attention span

Attention spans have fallen and ADHD cases have risen over the years, but both aren't linked. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) typically affects children up to the age of 12, causing hyperactive behaviour and difficulty in sustaining attention.

A recent study published in the Lancet Journal of Psychiatry reveals that those with ADHD have a brain structure slightly different from those who don't, proving that it isn't a behavioural, but neurological disorder.

How to gadget detox

  • Start by not carrying your phone to the dining table and to the washroom.
  • Make sure your child indulges in free non-structured play for one to two hours every day.
  • Spend at least 10 minutes a day doing absolutely nothing.
  • Learn to be by yourself, without people, and without gadgets.
  • Don't carry your gadgets when on vacation.

You have low attention span if

  • You couldn't finish reading this article at one go.
  • You'd rather call for a registered cab service arriving in two minutes flat instead of waiting for a taxi or an auto.
  • You keep checking your phone even if it hasn't beeped.
  • You have more than two social media accounts.
  • You've been feeling more anxious and restless of late.

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