Study: Thanks to portable devices, our attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish

Nadine Kalinauskas
Daily Buzz
The Kimpton hotel chain across Canada and the US will put a goldfish in any guests hotel room for the duration of their stay if they are feeling a bit lonely. It is called the 'Guppy Love' program and hotel staff will make sure it is fed and cared for.

Ever wonder if that device that never leaves your hand is taking a toll on your attention span?

A 54-page Microsoft study that looked at surveys of more than 2,000 Canadians — and monitored 112 people’s brain activity —  says it is.

In fact, we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, a fact researchers believe can be linked to our inability to put down our smartphones and other portable devices.

A study in 2000 revealed that Canadians had 12-second attention spans, on average. That number has now dropped to 8 seconds, an entire second shorter than that of goldfish.

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed,” reads the study.

The study found a number of concerning statistics and “addiction-like behaviours” from the always-connected respondents: 44 per cent of respondents claimed they had to concentrate really hard to stay focused on tasks, 37 per cent said they were unable to make the best use of their time (often leading to working late in the evenings and on weekends), 77 per cent of respondents admitted to reaching for their phones when they feel bored, and 79 per cent reported using portable devices even when watching TV.

The study was intended to help marketers reach their multitasking audience. Apparently using your smartphone while you watch TV is a good thing for advertisers. 

“They were on their phones, and…they were reacting to what was happening on the TV even when they weren’t watching it,” Alyson Gausby, consumer insights lead with Microsoft Canada, told the Globe and Mail of observing participants in a multiscreen environment. “They were still laughing at the jokes, or when there were auditory cues, such as a tense moment, they would all look up.”

“It’s great news for marketers that multiscreening doesn’t reduce the potential impact of marketing.”

Gausby said Microsoft conducted the research to better understand how people are using today’s technologies.

“We see now that news is reduced to 140 characters, some conversations are condensed to emojis and we wanted to understand how this affecting the way that Canadians see and interact with the world,” she said. “It’s our new ‘newsfeed reality,’ as I like to put it.”

Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain & Mind Institute, told the Ottawa Citizen that the more we feed the brain, the hungrier it gets.

“When we first invented the car, it was so novel. The thought of having an entertainment device in the car was ridiculous because the car itself was the entertainment,” he said.

“After a while, travelling for eight hours at a time, you’d had enough of it. The brain is bored. You put radios in the car and video displays. Why? Because after the first 10 minutes of the drive, I’ve had enough already. I understand this.”

Just because we’re now allocating our attention differently doesn’t necessarily mean “the way our attention actually can function has changed,” he said.

Morton added, “digital technologies dovetail seamlessly into the information processing abilities of our brain.”

Last year, advertising researchers tracked 200 British people’s gadget habits and found that the average person switched devices a whopping 21 times an hour. 

How often do you put down your devices? Have you noticed your attention span shortening since you started carrying a smartphone with you everywhere?