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Is technology short-changing our attention spans?

Technology has transformed our lives for the better. But our reliance on our devices could also be altering our cognitive capacities in subtle but powerful ways.

From the beep of a fresh news alert to the ping of an incoming WhatsApp message, modern life often plays out to the sounds of our technology. Our smartphones put a universe of information in our pockets. And our laptops connect us with faraway friends and colleagues, with whom we can catch up face-to-face via the power of a Zoom call, an indispensable asset during the Covid pandemic.

Technology has given us a sense of connectivity, convenience and freedom that would be hard to imagine just a decade ago. But the benefits of the digital revolution don’t come without a cost.

Increasingly, research has found that our reliance on technology is altering the way we think, act and engage with other people. For example, an international 2019 study by the NICM Health Research Institute found that the internet can alter different areas of cognition, including our ability to recall parts of our memory. And a 2020 study funded by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that screen time before bed affected the sleep of children with impulse control problems.

Dr Sharon Horwood is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University. Her research into personality psychology and human-computer interaction was commissioned for Are You Addicted to Technology?, a ground-breaking SBS On Demand documentary that explores our relationship with technology. The show features an interactive questionnaire that gauges viewers’ levels of digital dependency, the largest survey into Australia’s digital usage of its kind.

Horwood says the belief that technology will instantly destroy our cognitive capacities isn’t accurate.

“Brains have evolved to do what they do over millennia; changes to population-level cognitive function can’t happen in a single generation,” she says.

She does point out, however, that digital devices are highly distracting. The mere presence of a smartphone or tablet can wreak havoc with our attention spans and throw our concentration levels off.

“What we do find with technology like smartphones and tablets is that they have the tendency to increase our absent-mindedness, reduce our ability to think and remember, to pay attention to things and regulate emotion. Most of us have our phones within arm’s reach. Even the possibility of a message or a call or something happening on social media is enough to divert our attention away from what we are doing.”

Horwood’s own study into problematic smartphone use, published in 2018 in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, found that 33% of respondents felt anxious if they hadn’t checked messages on their phone for a given period. Horwood likens our relationship to our devices to the “marshmallow test”, a famous experiment into the lure of instant gratification conducted by the Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel in the early 1970s.

“Mischel sat little kids in front of a marshmallow and told them they were free to eat it right now if they wanted to – but if they waited about 15 minutes while he was out of the room they could have two marshmallows when he got back,” she says. “Most kids ate the marshmallow straight away. The temptation for instant gratification was too strong to resist.”

The Australian Child Health Poll, a 2017 report conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, found that the majority of Australian children across different age groups were surpassing the national recommended guidelines for screen time. The report also discovered that 94% of Australian teenagers and 67% of primary-school-aged children had their own mobile device, and half of toddlers and pre-schoolers used screen-based devices without supervision.

Horwood says that excessive screen time among preschool and toddlers decreases executive function.

“Executive function is our ability to deal with cognitive tasks such as using your working memory, engaging flexible thinking, and managing self-control,” Horwood says. She adds that parents can share their insights into their children’s screen time at her research website BlackScreens, to help inform further research into the impact of technology on children.

“Executive function is really important and we don’t want it to be affected while we’re developing. Parents often report using screens to keep kids entertained so they can get stuff done, which is understandable. But screen time is replacing other activities such as parent-child time and social play.”

Our dependence on technology doesn’t just erode our cognitive abilities, Horwood says. The effects also ripple into society, affecting our power to empathise with other people.

“The thing I have the most concern about regarding adolescents and smartphones is the development of empathy,” she says. “We learn empathy from the results of our actions, [by recognising] the signs of emotional pain. But if you are sitting on the couch, you don’t see the impact of what you’re doing. It’s very easy to say terrible things that impact heavily on the receiver.”

Dangers aside, Horwood is a great advocate of technology.

“Technology is not going anywhere – it is only going to get faster and more powerful,” she says, adding that it’s still too soon to completely understand the effects of digital dependence.

To protect ourselves from technology’s effect on our minds we need to become more conscious of how we engage with our devices, Horwood says.

“The first thing is understanding how much you do rely on your phone and from there you can work out if you need to start reducing your reliance. It’s not a case of fate or destiny. The long-term consequences of screen use are what we make them.”

Source: The Guardian