Sunday Independent – John McGee, published 8th January, 2017
The average attention span of a typical goldfish is nine seconds according to scientists at the US National Library of Medicine. While I’m sure they have spent a vast amount of resources arriving at this fascinating – although possibly pointless – conclusion, it’s somewhat worrying that this is actually one second more than the average human being.
Yes, that little fish that swims haplessly around the fish tank on the sideboard has a greater attention span than your average smartphone-wielding teenage son or daughter who has had thousands of euro invested in his or her education down through the years. While this might come as a shock to many people, we have been warned many times in the past about how the excessive use of technology in our lives is eating away at how we think, how we interact with our peers and how we feel about ourselves.
Indeed, recent research carried out by the Dublin-based media agency Mediaworks reinforces many of the worrying and widely-held beliefs that cyber psychologists have developed over the past few years.
For a start, the research reveals that the average Irish adult spends 11 hours and 44 minutes consuming and processing information on a daily basis. Considering there are only 24 hours in a day, eight to 10 of which are spent sleeping, that’s a lot of processing.
Whether it’s spent on the internet, watching TV, listening to radio, reading newspapers or communicating via social media and messaging apps, it still involves our brains absorbing and processing vast quantities of data, which in turn is causing dramatic changes in the way we feel about ourselves, how we think and how we interact with one another.
According to Mediaworks, nowhere is the impact of this shift more evident than within the so-called millennial generation of 18 to 24-year-olds who are very much social media natives who have grown up with Facebook and Twitter and who would have had a smartphone from their early teens.
The research shows that this cohort spends more than three hours a day networking or messaging, although amongst the slightly older 25 to 34 demographic, this figure drops by half.
“Whilst devices are now a second skin to us all, younger audiences today are the most dependent on smartphones, tablets and gaming devices,” Fiona Field, deputy managing director of Mediaworks, said.
“Some 24pc of 18 to 24-year-olds said they could only last nine to 11 minutes without a device, demonstrating how much a crutch they are in everyday life. This, of course, has knock-on effects to attention spans, where much of people’s lives are spent with one eye on a device and the other on life,” she said.
“All of the major advances in technology and the accompanying brands like Tinder, Hailo, Spotify, Netflix, not to mention the social networks, have dramatically changed our world for the better. However, like any invention, we are now experiencing the side effects, which of course is extremely worrying for society and future generations.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge to society is how we adapt to this on-demand or swipe-right generation which is clearly having a dramatic effect on attention spans. It’s not just marketers who need to pay attention and evolve – we all need to adapt. In many ways, brands created the problem by making life easier for all of us. The explosion of technology, or the internet of everything, has left us entitled, lazy and devoid of waiting for anything.”
When quizzed about how this vast reservoir of information coming at them from all directions actually makes them feel, some 43pc of the 18 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that it made them feel anxious and stressed.
In addition, nearly half of the same age group now finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods. “This is despite this same audience feeling that they are adept at skimming and scanning information, unlike their older counterparts,” Field said.
Apart from the considerable ramifications all of this has for our society and culture, for marketers, advertisers and indeed media companies, all of which are vying for the attention of this cohort, the challenges look set to become a lot more complex than they already are.
But there may be some hope.
“Brands tomorrow will cement their leadership by solving these problems and helping society by going beyond what is deemed responsible and solving social problems,” Field said.
“Campaigns that truly connect are quite often ones that identify with society’s biggest challenges by being culturally relevant. Examples include the Guinness ‘Made of More’ campaign which showcased integrity and strength of character. In today’s society to be true to this ideal, brands also have to invest in more than just good creative and help to solve the root of the problem. Brand purpose will dominate,” she said.
So, dear reader, if you have managed to get this far, your name is not Dory or indeed Nemo.