April 16, 2019 -- Pop art guru Andy Warhol once predicted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.
He may have been too generous.
The vast and growing volume of diversions that pepper our modern world appears to be taking a toll on our attention spans as people hop to the next trending topic faster and faster, European researchers report this week.
“We’re confirming something that a lot of people have been feeling, but that we haven’t had any large-scale evidence for,” says Sune Lehmann, PhD, a data scientist at the Technical University of Denmark and a co-author of the study. “A lot of us have had a feeling that things are moving faster.”
The findings, published Monday in the research journal Nature Communications, were the result of nearly 2 years of work by Lehmann and colleagues in Germany and Ireland. They mathematically tracked billions of Twitter hashtags, Google queries, Reddit comments, and other markers of online popularity as they rose and fell over various time spans in the last decade and a half.
They also examined citations of scientific journals, Wikipedia entries, box-office receipts of more than 4,000 movies over 40 years, and key phrases in 100 years of books cached online. And they found the time it took for a topic to peak in popularity and drop off has been getting shorter as more material competes for a limited mental market.
The study differs from previous research by trying to quantify differences in attention span “on a very large scale,” Lehmann says.
“It’s a new take on trying to understand some of the things our technology seems to be doing to us,” he says.
For example, in 2013, a popular topic generally stayed in Twitter’s top 50 trending topics for an average of 17.5 hours, the researchers reported. By 2016, that number had dropped to 11.9 hours. At the same time, the number of people following each topic at its peak was roughly the same, Lehmann says.
In other words, the same number of people were engaged with the Twitter topic at its peak in both years, but no single topic could keep the masses engaged for as long.
Not only is there “more and more stuff going into the systems,” he says, but companies that produce and market that stuff are getting better at keeping you on their platforms.
“One of way of doing that is serving you content that keeps you sitting at the computer,” Lehmann says. “That has to do with both sending you something interesting but [also] making it easier to get that next piece of information.”
The outliers in the study -- meaning visitors were not spending as much time there -- were the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where Lehmann suggested visitors tend to focus on finding quick answers to a specific question; and scientific journals --“It’s more painful than being on Facebook scrolling through a news feed,” he says.
The study feeds into an ongoing debate about the effects the electronic revolution of the past 3 decades has had on how our brains work. Richard Restak, MD, says the immersion in technology is rewiring people’s brains and can produce effects similar to those seen in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“People with ADHD, when they’re not medicated, describe a constant bombardment of sensory inputs of every sort,” says Restak, a neurologist at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “All the medications do is cut it down to one or two things, which is normal.”
The brain can adapt to meet those new demands and perceptions, and there’s some evidence that’s happening, Restak says. There has been an increase in diagnoses of ADHD in adults, while children who grew up in the internet era “are much more comfortable with multitasking, and much more adept at it.”
Other researchers have warned about negative consequences of being immersed in electronic stimuli, suggesting some people are susceptible to internet “addiction” that can affect relationships and jobs the same way substance abuse or compulsive gambling can.
The American Psychological Association says more than 4 out of 5 Americans are “very attached” to their electronic devices. And while about two-thirds of them believe it’s important to unplug once in a while, barely a quarter ever do it, the organization found.
Much of the concern about media and attention span focuses on children. The APA recommends consistent limits on screen time for school-age children and various recommendations for kids under 6. But Lehmann says the new study suggests it’s an issue for adults, too.
“On Reddit and Twitter, the main user group might skew slightly younger, although with a large fraction of adult users,” he says. “But movies, books, et cetera, would have a quite balanced audience.”