Yes, your suspicions have been confirmed by science: A growing fixation on video screens large and small, and the constantly changing images and messages these screens provide, may be altering how our brains work. New research is showing that younger brains can process information faster than previous generations, and so they can transition from task to task more easily. And people who grew up in this modern tech era may be even better conditioned for the constant switching. But this research also is revealing a key counter-theme: Older adults may be mentally superior in their ability to focus and learn due to a more resilient and long-lasting attention span.
So much stimuli
“I think we’re entering an era where different people of different ages have very different brains,” says Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Attention Merchants, about the industry of capturing and selling human attention. “That’s the new generation gap. And some of the advantage goes to older people.”
The prime culprit in hijacking attention spans is the smartphone. Americans, on average, touch their phones an astounding 2,617 times a day, according to market researcher Dscout. Checking phones has become so prevalent that more than 40 percent of consumers said they look at the devices within five minutes of waking up, according to a 2016 survey by Deloitte. Fifty percent said they check them in the middle of the night.
Beyond phones, video screens seem to be inescapable. They’re in our living rooms (TVs) and on our desktops (computers); they’re in taxicabs and elevators; they’re in waiting rooms and stores — even on gas station pumps. And they’re in our hands constantly.
“The brain starts learning how to switch rapidly from one task to another to another,” says William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University and author of Teach Your Kids How to Learn. “It becomes a habit. But this habit conflicts with focused attentiveness.” In a study at Boston College, people in a room with a TV and a computer switched their eyes back and forth every 14 seconds — 120 times in 27.5 minutes.
Inability to unplug
As distraction becomes the norm, we start to crave it when it doesn’t exist, which is why so many people check their phone screens even as they walk down the street. In one experiment, 94 percent of Chicago pedestrians using cellphones didn’t see cash hanging from a tree. Just the presence of smartphones — even when they aren’t actively being used — can affect our cognitive performance. When participants in a study at Hokkaido University in Japan performed a task on a computer, those with a phone nearby performed more slowly than those who had a memo pad. Similarly, a single notification on your phone weakens your ability to focus on a task, researchers at Florida State University found. Those notifications may be short, but “they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering,” the researchers wrote.
The inability to unplug also creates anxiety. People who continually check their phones report higher stress levels than those who do it less frequently, an American Psychological Association survey reports. Stress, in turn, hurts our ability to concentrate, says Adam Gazzaley, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and coauthor of The Distracted Mind.
Older brains, better brains?
Because they didn’t grow up with smartphones, older Americans may be better equipped for serious thinking, Wu says. “They are often better trained to be patient with complex tasks,” he says. “They can stand being bored for more than a second. I think the generation that is most at risk are the millennials, who have zero tolerance for boredom.”