King’s College London: Data shows UK public are worried – but also see benefits from technology

Claims of a supposed “attention war” have seen new technology blamed for a decline in our ability to concentrate – but a major new survey of the UK public by the Policy Institute and Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London reveals a more nuanced picture.

On the one hand, we don’t realise how addicted we are to our technology, and worry our attention is shortening:

UK adults hugely underestimate how often they check their phones, thinking they check them 25 times a day on average, when studies suggest the reality is up to 80 times a day.1
50% say despite their best efforts they sometimes can’t stop checking their smartphones when they should be focusing on other things, with this proving a struggle for middle-aged people as well as the young.
People are more likely than not to feel their attention span is shorter than it used to be (49% vs 23%).
But these perceptions may be linked to some commonly believed myths about attention spans – and many of us still see significant positive impacts from technology and don’t put all the blame on big tech:

Half (50%) wrongly believe the average attention span among adults today is just eight seconds long.
51% say technology is ruining young people’s attention – but a similar proportion (47%) think being easily distracted is more just a result of people’s personality.
60% say having information at their fingertips helps them find solutions to problems at work and in their lives.
51% say multi-tasking at work, switching frequently between email, phone calls, or other tasks, creates a more efficient and satisfactory work experience, compared with 32% who don’t think this is the case.
The attention span of a goldfish?
Many Britons are wrong about a commonly heard claim – that the average attention span among adults today is just eight seconds long, supposedly worse than that of a goldfish. This claim has been debunked2 – but 50% wrongly believe it is true, compared with 25% who correctly identify that it is false.

An attention crisis?
It’s important to recognise that a lack of long-term studies means we can’t tell whether attention spans have actually declined. But despite this, there is at least a public perception that our ability to concentrate has worsened:

Half the public (49%) say they feel like their attention span is shorter than it used to be, while with around a quarter (23%) disagree with this.
Even more widespread is the belief that young people’s attention spans in particular are worse than they were in the past, with two-thirds of people thinking this is the case (66%), including six in 10 (58%) 18- to 34-year-olds, the youngest age group surveyed.
47% say that “deep thinking” has become a thing of the past – roughly double the proportion who disagree with this view (23%).
The impact of technology
It is the case that research has shown technology can interfere with our ability to concentrate.3 For example, switching our attention between social media, smartphones, tablets as well as TV, radio, or other media harms our ability to complete simple tasks – something that is correctly recognised by 67% of the public.

Many think more should be done to address these kinds of impacts, with 51% of UK adults believing tech companies and social media are ruining young people’s attention spans and that governments should take control to prevent this.

But at the same time, a similar proportion (47%) think the reason some people are easily distracted is not because of technology but because it is part of their personality, and many also feel that tech brings important benefits:

60% say having multiple forms of instant information at their fingertips helps them find solutions to problems they face at work, in their personal life or elsewhere, with 11% disagreeing.
51% say multi-tasking at work, switching frequently between email, phone calls, or other tasks, creates a more efficient and satisfactory work experience, compared with 32% who don’t think this is the case.
By 43% to 28%, the public are more likely than not to say using social media alongside other forms of entertainment like TV or radio enhances their enjoyment by connecting them to others.
The pace and complexity of modern life
Without long-term research tracking attention spans over time, it remains unknown whether technology has caused a deterioration in the country’s ability to concentrate. But comparisons with survey data from previous decades indicate that, on some measures, the public at least feel more pressured now than they did in the past:

41% of UK adults say the pace of life is too much for them these days, compared with 30% in 1983.
60% say they wish their life was more simple – up from 49% in 2008.
The UK consists of four groups with different views of attention and technology
New statistical analysis shows that the country is made up of four distinct groups of people with very different views of attention and technology:

“Positive multi-screeners” (42% of UK)
Highly engaged users; keen information searchers; relaxed in terms of managing information; some concerns about attention spans but see lots of benefits from the wealth of information available. This is the biggest group in the population, confirming that we don’t all see technology trends as negative.

“Stressed tech addicts” (21%)
Feel overloaded with information; highly engaged users that see benefits in having these information sources, particularly social media; but the greatest concern about what it is doing to attention spans, and believe it is causing the end of deeper thinking.

“Overloaded sceptics” (21%)
Feel overloaded with information; very concerned about decreasing attention spans and the loss of deeper thinking – but much more negative about the value social media brings, compared with the “stressed tech addicts”.

“Disengaged and untroubled” (17%)
Uninterested in searching for information; no concerns expressed about attention spans or the amount of information; and barely noticed any signs of an “attention war”.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“It’s a common generational stereotype that today’s youth are uniquely glued to their devices – but in reality middle-aged people are just as likely to say they can’t stop checking their phones when their focus should be elsewhere, with six in 10 reporting they struggle with this.

“This no doubt adds to the very clear sense among the public that attention spans are short, and getting shorter, with tech to blame – despite there being no real evidence that this is the case. Half of us believe the claim that adults today only have an eight-second attention span, even though this has been thoroughly debunked – the myth has stuck with many of us, partly because it still gets repeated so much.

“But this doesn’t mean we haven’t seen some real impacts on how we live, particularly in the sheer volume and variety of information available to us today. We’re more likely to say the pace of life is too much these days, or that we wish our lives were simpler, than we were in previous decades. We’re not preparing our young people – or ourselves – for this new reality as well as we should.”

Professor Marion Thain, Director of the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London, said:

“It is often assumed that the distractions of multi-tasking at work harm productivity and leave workers stressed and unsatisfied, yet the majority in this study believe that toggling between tasks actually makes for a more efficient and satisfactory work experience. This is interesting because it runs counter to evidence from psychological studies, and suggests we need to do more research to understand what potential benefits people might draw from multi-tasking.

“On the other hand, 47 percent of people in this study felt that deep thinking had become a thing of the past. We should not be surprised at this as we know from work being done at the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s that new technologies have been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for causing crises of distraction long before the digital age.

“What comes out clearly from these data is that we need to figure out how to live better within the ‘attention economy’. Our electronic gadgets are not going away and we need to ensure we harness them for individual and social good. The Centre for Attention Studies at King’s is dedicated to understanding our experience of the digital world and is exploring new models for how we can live and work well with technology.”

Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Co-Director of the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London, said:

“Technology has created more distractions and reduced the need, and perhaps willingness, of people to engage in long and tedious tasks to achieve their goals. But it’s an untested hypothesis whether this impacts our underlying ability to concentrate.

“The modern information environment may also suit people with certain types of attentional style, such as those with ADHD. It’s difficult to define “normal” attention, and people who concentrate in different ways may have certain advantages as we go through this period of techno-cultural change.”

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