The latest research is showing that younger brains can process information faster than previous generations, which enables them to transition from task to task much more easily. Why? Because they have been brought up with the fixation of a screen that constantly changes images and messages. This has ultimately changed how their brains work and it would seem they are better conditioned for the constant switching. The same research though is also revealing that the older generation may be mentally superior in their ability to focus and learn due to a more resilient and long-lasting attention span.
“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 which is about the industry of capturing and selling human attention. “That’s the new generation gap and some of the advantage goes to the older people. Because they didn’t grow up with smartphones older Americans may be better equipped for serious thinking. They are often better trained to be patient with complex tasks and 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.”
Would you believe studies carried out by market researcher Dscout reveal that smartphone owners in the US touch their phones an average of 2,617 times a day? How crazy is that? According to a 2016 survey by Deloitte 40 percent of consumers admitted that they look at their devices within five minutes of waking up whilst 50 percent said they check them in the middle of the night.
It’s not just our phones that our bombarding us with images and information, no matter where you are these days you will be confronted with a video screen. Go into any doctor, dentist, chiropractor’s office and you will find one there, in fact it can be any waiting room. They are at the gas station when you are filling up, in elevators, banks, bars, restaurants and even taxi cabs.
“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 You 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 which accumulates to 120 times in 27.5 minutes.
This distraction has now become the norm and we almost can’t exist without it. Doing any activity now is almost always going to be interrupted by checking your phone. In one experiment in Chicago 94 percent of pedestrians did not see cash hanging from a tree because they were too busy looking at their phones.
It would also seem that just having a smartphone nearby interferes with our concentration and 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 just a memo pad nearby. Researchers at Florida State University also found that a single notification on your phone weakens your ability to focus on a task. Those notifications may be short, but “they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering” the researchers wrote.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a report from the American Psychological Association shows that the continual checking of our phones has also increased our stress levels.
A study published in Surgical Technology International suggests that looking down at a cellphone is the equivalent of placing a 60 pound weight on your neck. Trying to work that one out? Well, if you’ve ever been to a football game, the zoo, a concert where your child couldn’t see then you would have probably placed them on your shoulders, it probably wouldn’t have taken long before your neck got sore and you just had to give in and put him or her down. Now imagine never taking that child off your shoulders, that 60 pound weight referred to earlier is the equivalent of an 8 year old child on your neck constantly and you are living with that strain 24/7.
As I write this and read the research I will openly admit that I am one of the 40 percent of people who check their phone within five minutes of waking up and I am also one of the 50 percent who check it in the middle of the night. Are you?