Attention: How digital technologies influence what we notice, what we focus on, and how we learn
Below is an editorial summary of “Attention”:
This report examines the impact that technology has on the cognitive function of attention. It provides a working definition of attention within a cognitive science context, including the distinction between overt and covert attention. It summarizes findings that elucidate how attention is affected by the passive and active consumption of technology. Two common forms of active consumption are also examined in more detail: multitasking and gaming. This review provides introductory insight into how human attention is being affected by digital technologies and concludes with a brief discussion of the implications of this research.
Key findings in this report indicate that attention may be affected by digital technologies in the following ways:
- Distraction from critical tasks: The presence of a phone or the sound of a phone ringing distracts a driver enough to impact their performance while driving a car. Immersive digital experiences, coupled with expanding connectivity and computational power, surround users psychologically.
- Information foraging: Historically, the human dopaminergic system evolved around the desire-and-reward cycle of food-foraging and eating. The impulse to seek information or to skim through digital content more passively is rooted in the dopaminergic feedback system, which motivates neurological and behavioral patterns that evolved around food-foraging activity.
- Division of attention: Digital technologies seem to encourage and facilitate multitasking and rapid task switching, which may influence attentional resource allocation and abilities or reduce the ability to maintain focus on a single task. Brasel and Gips found that subjects switched their attention between television and smartphone use at a rate of four times per minute.
- Neurological consequences: Extensive screen time among adolescents is correlated with atrophy of gray matter areas of the brain attributed to information processing; atrophy of white matter areas attributed to communication between different parts of the brain; reduced cortical thickness attributed to impaired cognitive performance; and, in the case of gaming, brain changes similar to those caused by drug addiction.
- Disordered attention: Research has found correlations between high frequencies of checking social media and a higher likelihood of developing ADHD-like symptoms.