The Internet Is Killing Our Attention Span, but It Can Be Saved

‘Although I was once a voracious reader, I can no longer read books,’ is a phrase I sadly hear all too often.

Updated
Mind It
5 min read
Has too much time on the internet got you feeling like a goldfish too?
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I eye the book on my nightstand as I tuck myself into bed. It has a bookmark jutting out of it, and also a thin layer of dust. It’s fairing much better though, than the other books on my shelf with more bookmarks jutting out of them.

Like every night, I resolve to finish the book, and like every night, I end up reading a couple of pages before I start scrolling through my phone.

It’s an interesting book. I want to read it. I used to be able to. See, I was the type of kid that had my lunch in the school library. The kind that read books with a flashlight under the covers past my bedtime.

Now I am the adult that stares at my phone under the covers, way, way past my bedtime.

Over the years I have found it increasingly hard to focus while reading books, or any long piece of text. I get restless, I get distracted, and I unconsciously start scrolling down a couple of seconds in, in the same way that you’re probably tempted to right now.

When Life Imitates Art

In the 1985 novel, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman talks about Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, a dystopian novel about a utopian future, written 17 years before George Orwell's the 1884, and one that he argues is more scarily prophetic than the latter.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Neil Postman, Author of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

The book imagines a future where people are sluggish and sedated with the overconsumption of an endless supply of satiating media and instant gratification.

Postman, in the book, talks of a monumental shift in the early 80s. ‘Serious’ information that was earlier got from newspapers and journals—both of which required active engagement and contemplation, were now got from TV. This propelled the shift from the written word to the much easier to digest, visual form, and the merging of information and entertainment.

Internet Stole My Attention Span

With the media competing to hold the attention of a fickle audience with more interesting, gripping, fresh content, we start seeing a pattern emerge of trends, news, and entertainment passing through at a feverish rate.

An embodiment of this is the 6-second looping videos popular in the early 2010s.

As content comes and swiftly passes us by for the next more interesting thing of the second, and our brains are expected to keep up with this pace, there’s naturally not much engagement involved, and we are reduced to passive consumers.

And I know for a fact that it's not just me.

Friends who would always have a book in hand back in school, ones who would devour the latest Harry Potter instalment in under a couple of days, now tell me how they haven’t picked up a book in years. And it's not a lack of time or inclination either.

They lament their lost attention span, saying now, let alone entire books, they can barely read a long-ish news articles all the way through.

Like me, they spend hours scrolling through bite-sized nuggets of 250 characters or less, but aren’t able to spend the same amount of time reading one piece of work.

We would rather listen to audiobooks because it frees us up to do other things simultaneously. We would rather watch a movie, and scroll through our phones as we do. Because the idea of just sitting and just reading for hours almost seems too impossible.

So pervasive is this phenomenon that even older people who have spent and worked for a majority of their life without the internet notice themselves succumbing to it.

Journalist Nicholas Carr, in the brilliant 2008 article, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, for the Atlantic talks about ‘power browsing’ and how he now inadvertently switches to skimming the surface a few sentences in.

In the article, Carr also talks about how he—and others, have not only lost the ability to read but also to remember, process, and contemplate information like he used to, essentially making him feel, well, stupid.

Our brains get so used to constantly changing  instantly gratifying content that it can get hard to focus on reading books that require time and patience.
Our brains get so used to constantly changing instantly gratifying content that it can get hard to focus on reading books that require time and patience.
(Photo: iStock)

Is It Just a Theory?

Almost every other person you talk to that ‘used to be a voracious reader’ could furnish this theory with an anecdote or two of their own. But is there conclusive scientific research to back it?

While there have been some studies that attest to this phenomenon, there isn’t exactly any definitive empirical evidence as of yet to support this theory.

For one, it is difficult to measure or quantify attention. There is also no such thing as an ‘average attention span’ which makes it difficult to study if there has been a shift in it.

But more and more research focused on this link, in the last couple of years, indicates that the theory may not just be a theory.

Whether proven scientifically or not, it still remains true that content on the internet is geared towards catering to the “goldfish effect” or an increasingly attention-challenged population, with a constant barrage of content that is, more visually engaging, more provocative, more entertaining, at a rate that is ever accelerating.

And the fatigue of trying to keep up is starting to get to many of us.

All Is Not Lost: Can You Bring Back Your Lost Attention?

Is there a way to reverse this? FIT speaks to Dr Kamna Chhibber, who heads the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Science at Fortis Hospital to find out.

“We live in a world where we are continually bombarded with information. The constant information in-flow affects individuals ability to focus and concentrate, and easy access to apps and varying sources of information has certainly contributed to the problem.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber, Head, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Science, Fortis Hospital

Dr Chhibber talks of the mental preoccupation of constantly needing to be in the know, to keep up with everything that’s going on out there and be in the loop, and the toll this takes on our minds.

This need for our minds to be constantly stimulated with something new at a fast pace is chipping away at our patience and even our peace of mind.

So what can you do to stop?

Becoming aware of the things you interact with on a daily basis and the kind of effects they have on you is the first step to minimising their ramifications.

"Try and curb the distractions by becoming more aware of their existence and their manifestation," she says.

Dr Chhibber emphasises on the importance of drawing boundaries for yourself.

“Making a concerted effort to focus on tasks and taking a proactive approach to delay the engagement with distracting stimuli are effective means that can help an individual curtail the problem.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber

"At the same time, it is important that one also solicit the help and support of those around by requesting them to avoid sharing information that is likely to be distracting especially when one is occupied with something important," she adds.

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