Saim, a 22 year old student from Islamabad is currently enrolled in an undergraduate program in NUST. He struggles with a short attention span and says, “Comparing myself from five years back to right now, it’s like I can barely do the same thing for an hour. If I’m watching a show or something, I’d take small breaks – watch 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Even though [I’m] watching something for entertainment, after a certain period of time, [I] no longer feel as entertained by it. Something just says ‘you need to change things,’ and I feel the urge to start doing something else.”
This is not an experience unique to Saim, in fact, is lived by many people everyday. For instance, this tweet was retweeted over 200,000 times, and is one of many sharing a similar sentiment.
In 2021, it seems that we have come to the collective realisation that our attention spans are not what they used to be. Many people have found themselves unable to complete tasks that demand long sustained and uninterrupted focus while gravitating towards media that’s quick and easy to consume. The struggle to stay focused is constant, and begins very early in the day as well.
Chances are that you may have experienced it firsthand every morning as well. You wake up to the sound of your phone’s alarm. You lean over to turn it off and swipe down on your notification bar in the process. You see several WhatsApp chats with new messages, probably just a project update or meme someone sent to a group chat. Two new emails in your Outlook app – probably automated emails from your college counseling office – ignore. Two new snaps – probably a blank picture captioned “streak”, you know you’ll get to it later. There’s a new software update alert. You don’t care too much for new phone updates anyway; you ignore this too.
Processing all this information did not take you more than 10 seconds. You don’t actually read the entire content of each notification now. With the COVID-19 lockdown, quite a lot of your behaviour has involved checking and waiting for notifications on your phone, though. So, when you find yourself reaching for it again, you realise that this is a practiced habit.
So practiced that you find yourself reflectively reaching your phone at odd times. Even when you have no immediate reason to check it, the urge remains regardless despite an intention to fight it. But you are shocked when you find yourself fighting it when a slow scene in a TV show comes up, or when you have picked up a book you have been trying to read, or when you are attempting to stay focused during a Zoom call.
If you have had to adapt to the all-online nature of the post-lockdown world, chances are you relate to the ubiquity of the urge I have described in the above paragraph.
There is something that has changed in the way our brains decide what to focus on. What is it?
Inattention and the Attention Economy
This inattention can be explained through a new approach in information management and marketing that has reconfigured how digital technologies can operate; that of “The Attention Economy.”
The Nielson Norman Group defines it in terms of how the modern economy “increasingly revolves around the human attention span and how products capture that attention”. In the past, there were genuine physical limitations to how much information you could feed someone – there are only so many billboards you can fit on a highway or adverts that can fit into the front page of a newspaper. Now, we hold in our pockets the potential to access a limitless range of adverts, notifications, and pop-ups all with a single scroll across a touch screen that is never too far from us. The range of information that every single user is subjected to has increased tremendously.
But seeing a hundred headlines everyday does not guarantee that we will read all of them, and companies profit only when we have spent enough time on their websites or on their applications to generate ad revenue. Just getting a notification for a news update or a new email does not work; the form of the notification itself has to change to get you to open the website or application and spend a substantial amount of time here.
And it has. Apple first introduced push notifications in 2009. Since then, their use has increased massively with the average US smartphone user receiving 46 push notifications per day. With around a quarter of a billion smartphones currently in circulation in the US, this amounts to over 11 billion push notifications sent daily – and this is for only one country. By announcing themselves with a pop message and accompanying sound or vibrations, push notifications immediately demand that you cease what you are doing and address the notification.
Besides this, social media applications have redesigned themselves to maximise the time a user spends on a website every time they open it. A few years back, social media companies altered the algorithm for news feed that led to showing posts from chronological order to posts that people are most likely to engage with. Facebook’s News Feed Product Management Director described it as designed to “show people content that we think they find meaningful.”
The effects of this change can be seen in other fields too. Online journalism has been heavily criticised for posting clickbait headlines that are short, sensational, and give little information to convince readers to open the links.
Overall, this creates a world where our attention is repeatedly pulled in many different directions by digital nudges designed to be as effective in hooking us in as possible. We find ourselves in multiple short engagements in a single session’s worth of social media use, none of which require us to focus intensely.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown, this situation has only gotten worse. Most of our work shifted online, bringing its baggage of notifications and other digital distractions onto a single platform.
Mughees, an economics student at NUST, says, “Post lockdown, on top of your regular communication, [everything has moved online] creating an influx of notifications to the point where for me I’d just stop looking at notifications throughout the day, and I’d try to do it at night. It felt like your classes or workday would actually end at 8 pm.”
The change in our attention spans can thus be attributed to the above. However, for people who are non-neurotypical, the current digital landscape poses a more unique set of problems.
ADHD and Inattention
The typical image of someone who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is of a hyperactive and impulsive child who does not pay attention in class and is generally disruptive towards his parents and peers. However, this does not paint a picture of the full spectrum of people who have ADHD. There is evidence that more and more people are being diagnosed with the condition every year.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is not really an issue of an attention deficit per se, as the term implies. Instead, it has to do with the lack of a regulation of attention. People with ADHD can still focus; they just do not have a lot of control over when and where they are able to apply that focus. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) lists “difficulty sustaining attention,” an inclination towards “making a careless mistake,” and forgetfulness in daily activities as common symptoms of inattentive-type ADHD. These tend to become bigger problems as people with ADHD grow up and enter adulthood when they need to organise their lives on their own terms.
I was officially diagnosed with ADHD in my Sophomore year of university. But that was only the point where a psychiatrist officially confirmed my diagnosis. My suspicions that I had it range far back. As early as the sixth grade, I remember telling my mother that despite how much I read my school Geography textbook at her insistence, I was not able to retain anything. I would tell her, “The words would go in one ear and come out the other.” Back then, no matter how earnest and effort I would put in to get through a chapter, my brain would simply not cooperate. Every sentence would be a struggle to get through, and words would cease to mean anything. If I did manage to read anything, I would forget it immediately after. Every distraction became even more powerful too since my brain was actively looking for things that would distract it from what became drudgery. The condition that many people are finding themselves in as a result of digital technology is similar to my starting point even before I encountered them.
But this only shows the symptoms I had that were directly related to my ability to concentrate. At that point in time, I was still living under a structure. School, O/A Level Exams, standardised tests, extracurricular activities along with my family’s pressures and expectations of me mediated my daily life. The belief that a bad performance in a major examination would affect me for the rest of my life put a certain pressure that would kick in at the last minute and ensure overall decent performance.
As that pressure and daily structure is removed in adulthood, people with ADHD are left struggling to complete even the smallest of tasks that they set for themselves. Here, it’s less clear what is required of them in terms of academic and professional stress while also demanding an increased effort in terms of organisation and hard work. In other words, there’s a higher expectation of effort and increasing ambiguity as to what the reward for that effort will be. Other symptoms that were largely suppressed by structure and routine come out of their dormancy as they begin to find tasks that are easy for neurotypical people become struggles for people with ADHD every day.
ADHD and the Global Pandemic
If the shift to an all-online culture post lockdown has troubled the attention spans and executive functioning of neurotypical people, those with ADHD are finding their pre-existing conditions exacerbated.
More than any other application, learning and working from home has meant having to use video calling applications like Zoom more than anything. It is the closest replacement we can get to in-person communication while still maintaining distance, but it is not without its detriments. For most people, paying attention to a lecture or meeting on Zoom for the same amount of time is far harder than doing the equivalent in person.
Zoom fatigue has already been investigated, with experts have pointed towards the lags in conversation and the lack of communication via body language as its causes. Zoom calls thus require people to exert more energy into paying attention to what is happening. For people with ADHD, emotional responses also tend to condition how much of yourself you are able to give to a task. Continued disappointment with their own ability to pay attention coupled with the dejected expectation that they’ll be unable to do so in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Paying attention to people with whom they attach a negative emotion is more difficult too. Aaleen, who was diagnosed with ADHD around a year back, points out that feeling like she is able to engage with the class and having a sense of trust with the environment enabled her to pay attention in some classes. She mentions one instructor with whom she had a disagreement over the factual accuracy of his lectures, and since then, she has been unable to focus on his Zoom classes throughout her online semester.
For me, online semesters have meant completely giving up hope on absorbing content through Zoom lectures. Focusing on the lecture was already an issue for me pre-pandemic; there were some classes that I attended just to ensure that I would not lose percentage points for class presence, relying afterward solely on assigned readings to make up for what I would miss in class. The lecture itself would be completely alien to me. Online, even classes that I would have paid attention to in person became inaccessible to me, limited to short 5 minutes loops of my attention zooming in and out.
A similar thing happens to me in Zoom meetings, my attention is rapt at the part of the meeting that concerns me the most. When my stakes in a meeting have been exhausted, my brain automatically begins to tune out.
Before, the environments that people with ADHD were in were useful for helping them foster a sense of focus. In an office or college, they are surrounded by people who are involved in the same work as they are which helps them set and maintain a routine. Aaleen details the effects of her transition to an all-online semester, and says, “If I’m working on a lecture or case studies in class, I’ll still do them in a set amount of time. But if I’m doing them at home, I know I’ll have to open my laptop and read something, but still get distracted by a different task or might go off on a tangent and do something else entirely. I might be replying to an email and get a text, and then completely forget about the email that I had.” She adds, “In contrast, when you’re on campus and people see you, there’s a sense that – oh! I need to submit this document before I go home today. There’s a chance you forget, but if everyone around you is doing something, you’re more likely to do it yourself. At home, even if it’s something as simple as attaching and sending a document, you keep getting distracted before you get to the send button.”
This is essentially the same argument about structures mentioned earlier. Work environments and people help people with ADHD manage their routines, expectations, and help create conditions conducive to focus. The new structures they have to create that revolve around digital spaces instead of physical spaces, are a poor substitute. Their intended structure is inherently unfriendly to people with ADHD, designed by tech companies to constantly snap people’s attention from one object to the next.
The screen becomes a site where many distractions jump out at you at once. Focusing on a reading or a lecture begins to feel impossible as each notification gnaws at you, demanding to be opened and investigated. You cannot turn them off completely either, for fear of missing important work-related updates. You remain stuck working in a space that actively trains you off the coping mechanisms you previously build to sustain attention. In this sense, the current design of digital technologies becomes parasitic upon the attention of people who already have little to spare.
Is there a way out?
Multiple solutions exist that are alleviative. Examples include recording meetings and lectures make it possible for people with ADHD to absorb information at a pace that works for them, making Zoom calls involve user participation and discussion, you can turn down notifications for a few of your applications, and mitigating the number of distractions you have to deal with to an extent.
None of these address the heart of the issue, and they all carry their associated costs. Recording meetings comes at the cost of the privacy of lecturers, and participants who have to bear with the fact that a video recording of every expression they have made over a several-hour period will be available to users. Not all notifications can be turned off, and some applications cannot be uninstalled at all.
The only real solution, then, is for tech companies to reorganise how digital technologies and notifications are designed to a system that enables people to focus and pay deep attention rather than be detrimental to it. Until then, the internet and access to it will continue to remain unfriendly for anyone who suffers with paying attention and focusing on tasks, or lives with any form of neurodiversity.