Can you sustain your attention for more than two minutes in a boring business meeting before wondering how many people liked your new pic on Instagram? Can you study for an exam without simultaneously tweeting, texting, and listening to your favorite mix on Spotify? How about sitting at a red light without sneaking a peak at Facebook? In our world of iPads and smartphones, we have constant and immediate access to anything that interests us, all the time. We never have to feel bored, wait for an answer to a question, or actually read entire articles about anything. Is this a blessing or a curse? Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to easy and immediate access to information and communication that our ability to actually sustain our attention through slightly less interesting scenarios may be taking an unfortunate de-evolution.
A recent survey of 2,000 Canadians performed by Microsoft showed that the average attention span of a Canadian dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds over the past 15 years. A goldfish can sustain attention for about 9 seconds. In this study, 44% of survey responders said they struggled to focus on tasks, and 37% said that their inability to manage time well caused them to work late or on weekends.
Are you still with me? Great, let’s continue.
Problems sustaining attention, working efficiently, and inhibiting impulses are all symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Is it possible that our digital environment is causing an uptick in ADHD symptoms in the general population? As a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in ADHD, I am often asked to assist in diagnosing ADHD in adolescents and adults who report problems focusing, initiating and completing tasks, and managing time efficiently. Although the notion of “normal attention span” seems to be shifting in our modern world, a diagnosis of ADHD is based on more than just your inability to stop surfing the web. A careful and thorough evaluation is necessary to assess the onset and course of symptoms over time and to measure attention abilities in an objective way (because feeling that you can’t pay attention doesn’t actually mean that your attention is impaired). It’s also important to rule out other causes of attention problems in daily life, such as stress, depression, or lack of sleep.
It seems as though there is a new “normal” for how well (or not so well) we are able to pay attention and resist our impulses. However, it’s important to distinguish between normal inattention and distractibility and a clinical diagnosis of ADHD. Talk to your doctor if you feel your difficulty paying attention is interfering with your daily life.