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Attention span likely affected by life circumstances rather than social media content: experts

PETALING JAYA: With the rapid development of technology and the acceleration of internet speed, some people tend to get impatient when downloads are slow, which raises the question whether such situations could cause deficit disorder. ‘Warning.

Cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor Dr. Neil Mennie and clinical psychologist Dr. Joel Low spoke with the sun recently on the matter.

“Attention is task-specific, with different types of attention used in different situations. Attention to music (hearing) is not the same as attention to objects in a video game. And that’s different from paying attention to the flavors coming from the kitchen,” Mennie said.

He added that if one were to be locked up with the same individual for an extended period of time, they would be given less attention over time. But if one gets bored and spends a lot of time on computer games, the attention within that game would be enhanced.

“Recent evidence suggests people are paying more attention to faces in Zoom calls. Also, where you pay attention can vary depending on the situation. Overall, it depends on individual circumstances. Attention can be enhanced as well as depleted,” he said.

Mennie added that the stress and anxiety contributed by the Covid-19 pandemic has had a knock-on effect on cognitive factors such as memory, decision-making and attention.

As to whether social media apps such as TikTok’s short video format have been linked to a decrease in attention span, he said it was likely a result of “the length of waning societal attention”, which started a long time ago.

“Applications such as Tiktok or Twitter, with their limited number of characters, do not cause a reduction in attention span. Rather, they succeed because they match society’s desire for small bits of information.

Low said there is no specific trigger for depleting attention span due to modern gadget use or the pandemic.

“There has been less appetite for long-form content on any platform for some time. But I think what’s happened with the pandemic is the acceleration of that, because most of us use our phones and our devices for almost everything.

Low added that social media has shown that people appreciate shorter articles, shows, vlogs and similar content.

“I think there’s a strong connection between TikTok and kids because of its popularity, and therefore our natural attraction to it.

“Those old enough will remember the earlier alliances with MySpace, Friendster and others, which, to be fair, helped shape how we consume online content these days,” he said.

Low also said people are at a stage where, as a collective whole, preferences for shorter forms of content are pervasive.

“(We should) increase our ability to make choices about when and where to get our attention.

“I think that would then give us freedom of choice and make the most of the limited time we have,” he added.

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