Is it true that today's "information age" with the internet, TV, cell phones, movies, iPhones, etc can decrease your attention span?

  • 4
    What was that you said?
    – pavium
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 12:27
  • 2
    Yes. where was I?
    – Anno2001
    Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 19:37
  • 7
    Admittedly I didn't read past the title, but no, I doubt it.
    – Publius
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 8:25

2 Answers 2


Stanford did a study on this, the press release can be found here: http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2009/multitask-research-release-082409.html

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.

I'm an avid reader of Cal Newport's blog. He's a very successful professor in computer science, and he credits his success to his emphasis on what he calls "deep work". Distraction-free hour-long efforts to get important things done. Being a scientist, he never fails to cite relevant research for his claims. Check out this recent post for a taste: http://calnewport.com/blog/2015/12/12/deep-habits-the-danger-of-pseudo-depth/

Something that came up again and again when I was researching my book on this topic, is that switching your attention — even if only for a minute or two — can significantly impede your cognitive function for a long time to follow.

More bluntly: context switches gunk up your brain.

This effect has been validated from many angles in academic psychology and related fields, [...]

This partly answers the question. There are multiple differing claims here, but the thing regarding attention spans seems to be validated by the Stanford research.


UPDATE: (In response to comment)

Attention span is a popular science construct. Related cognitive constructs include time-on-task and working memory capacity. The latter topic is often studied in a field called cognitive neuroscience. However, the former construct, time-on-task, is a difficult measure to study attention with because one may have to take into account motivation. Time-on-task or TOT is often used as a measure for motivation. In contrast, working memory requires the online updating of information and is associated with an individual capacity limit. Thus there is talk of "working memory span", the number of items a person is able to hold and maintain in memory for briefer intervals of time.

In popular science working memory has become associated with multitasking, and there are quite a few studies that explore the relevance of working memory for "dual-tasks" or more complex tasks, which require shifts of attention.

Memory has been one of the most studied aspects to understand our brains flexibility and malleability to change, neuroplasticity. Recent studies have demonstrated that it is possible to increase working memory capacity in certain domains, for example, in visuospatial tasks. This cognitive change has been found to change structures in the brain. Hence, plasticity is relevant for successful adaption to the environment - where the information and technologies are.

A cognitively demanding environment requires that humans adapt. To a certain degree, we successfully adapt, but the scientific literature has proposed laws suggesting that there can be too much of adaptation or sometimes not enough (see Figure 2 in Pascual-Leone et al., 2011), with consequences for whether we cope adequately with an increase of information. The goal is to reach optimal plasticity and thus optimal information coping. When it comes to selecting an appropriate information load, moderation appears to be key and gradual increases facilitate adaptive mechanisms (see Olesen, Westerberg, & Klingberg, 2004).

In conclusion, an increased use of technology can have both positive or negative effects on our ability to sustain attention as indicated by a stable maintenance required for working memory capacity. The way we approach technology decides the outcome.


Olesen P., Westerberg H., & Klingberg, T. (2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal brain activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 7(1), 75-79. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v7/n1/full/nn1165.html

Pascual-Leone, A. et al. (2011). Characterizing brain cortical plasticity and network dynamics across the age-span in health and disease with TMS-EEG and TMS-fMRI, Brain Topography, 24(3-4), 302-315. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374641/

  • I'd say attention span is a cognitive construct and these brain studies characterising differential activity relate at best remotely to the question.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 9:31
  • @Ruben, please see my updated answer.
    – noumenal
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 18:44
  • "demonstrated that it is possible to increase working memory capacity in certain domains" The research groups that made these claims have gotten a lot of negative attention recently - so I doubt these claims. But more importantly, the q was "Does technology have a negative effect on attention span?" and by technology, the asker meant smartphones, TV etc - not the N-back task that (very few) people specifically use because they think it will make them smarter (I'd say they're just training to beat the test), not because it's enjoyable etc.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 21:45
  • By all means doubt, but do you have are reference to the claim that "these claims have gotten a lot of negative attention recently"? I won't go into the differences between classical cognitivism and situated cognition, but I will say that within the cognitive science community and more specifically the human computer interaction (HCI) community there is a long-standing tradition to study cognition from the point of generic cognition and generalizability.
    – noumenal
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 6:55
  • 1
    Yeah, see also my answer to the Lumosity question on this site. There may be a tradition to look at generic cognition and generalizability, but the empirical finding is: true transfer effects are rare and many of the studies purportedly demonstrating them are flawed by design. We should move this to chat, if you want to continue to discuss - I think what we're discussing is interesting but really not very applicable to the question.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 11:31

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