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Have you been paying attention? The new documentary 'Screened Out' is wrong — history suggest humans have always been distractible

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

June 16, 2020   5 mins

So you decided to read this article. Thanks very much and all that, but are you sure you’re up to it? Do you really have powers of concentration sufficient to make it to the end of the page? There are biscuits in the biscuit tin. Somewhere, Candy requires crushing. Mail Online has probably just published a photograph of an actress who is not the same age as she was five years ago. Are you not feeling twitchy, even as your eye glides towards the question mark at the end of this first paragraph?

No? OK. I guess you must be one of those George Eliot types who stays up until 2am devouring German critical theory, and has never dreamt of liking a squirrel video or eating a whole packet of custard creams. But here are the headlines, just in case you’re drifting.

The smartphone is rewiring our brains.

It is shrinking our attention spans.

It has reduced our cognitive competence to goldfish level.

If you’ve been staying alert, you’ll have heard all this before. And if you haven’t, then you can see it insisted upon in an acclaimed documentary streaming now on a device near you. Screened Out is the work of the Canadian director, Jon Hyatt, and it is full of troubling statistics. The most troubling arrives in its fourth minute. “A study done by Microsoft revealed that the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight since the mobile revolution began,” says the anxious voiceover, “which makes our attention span a second below a goldfish, which is only nine.”

Helpfully, at this point, Screened Out shows us all the relevant numbers and the image of a gormless-looking fish. Not that we need them. As the Guardian’s reviewer pointed out, “Jon Hyatt runs the risk of stating the bleeding obvious by elaborating on facts everyone is already aware of.”

Here’s something that I suppose must be less obvious. Some of these facts are not facts. Many of those that are don’t amount to much. One of Hyatt’s interviewees, Nicholas Kardaras — a doctor who thinks that video games are as addictive as heroin and claims to have treated a boy reduced to a catatonic state by playing too much Minecraft — says this of digital technology: “It’s changing your kid’s brain. It’s rewiring your children, developmentally, neurologically.” This is true. All human experiences rewire the brain. That’s how brains work. If they didn’t, they would be some other order of object. One that would, say, not think to question that scary stat about digital technology and goldfish.

The Microsoft study quoted so vividly in Screened Out is not a scientific paper. It’s a 2015 consumer report carried out by the marketing team of the firm’s Canadian division. True, it contains an infographic that expresses identical claims about the decline of the average human attention span. But the only footnotes refer to texts that are either irrelevant or untraceable.

But that doesn’t seem to bother the makers of Screened Out. When contacted, they replied: “we say that Microsoft released a study, which is true.”

The exemplary BBC Radio 4 programme, More or Less — currently doing such sharp analysis of the government’s questionable use of Covid-19 statistics — followed this trail in 2017, demonstrating on the way that goldfish have excellent memories. But that hasn’t stopped this phantom study being deployed by a cohort of authors with one thing in common — the desire to sell us books about how we ought to be more attentive and less easily distracted.

Among them are You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters (2020) by the New York Times journalist Kate Murphy, and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017), by Adam Alter, an Associate Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business. (Alter is one of Hyatt’s most portentous talking heads.)

Is there any convincing research in this area? Not much. Mainly because the average attention span is a concept that most psychologists regard as meaningless. The closest I can find in the literature is a recent paper published by the journal Nature Communication, in which the authors attempt to measure the history of our “collective attention span” by comparing the longevity of twitter hashtags with the past four decades of box office receipts and the frequency of certain words and phrases in a century of texts digitised by Google books. “The phenomenon,” they concede, “lacks a strong empirical foundation.”

Like most declinist arguments about human powers of concentration, this work also lacks much of a sense of cultural history. In the last century, variety theatre managements packed their bills with magicians, comics and dancing dog acts. If they bored the audience, they were booed off. (There are eye-witness reports of patrons bringing along their knitting to the show, or shelling peas as they watched.)

If you went to the movies in the first decade of the last century, you would experience a similar vibe — punters got up and down as they liked as a cascade of short subjects flowed on the screen — one-shot trick films, newsreels, a Victorian novel boiled down to five minutes of action. (The film historian Tom Gunning described this as “the cinema of attractions” — movies that you watched for the images and the gags, not for the narrative.)

Were the attention spans of the Edwardians shorter than ours? I suppose we would have to bring a few of them through time to watch Scorsese’s The Irishman (209 minutes), Avengers: Endgame (181 minutes), play through Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (80 hours) or listen to some podcast series in which one hour of efficient radio has been fluffed into a 10 part epic. We might also ask them if they considered the hours we spend absorbed in social media to be evidence of an inability to concentrate, or evidence of an excess of that capacity.

Technologies of pleasure always acquire enemies. The medico-moral language they use to express their objections has remained remarkably consistent over time. In the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers and magazines ran think-pieces about the deleterious effects of so-called Sensation Novels, works accused of “preaching to the nerves” and “drugging thought and reason.” These days, they’re published by Penguin Classics. In the 1930s, the wireless was accused of destroying the art of conversation. Now it is regarded as the purest form of public service broadcasting. A sconce in the museum of moral anxiety may await today’s assertions about the narcotic and disabling effects of the smartphone.

I wonder if there’ll also be a place for my theory — it’s not backed up with any empirical research, but I don’t see why that should stop me airing it — that there’s always a space in the culture where social hygienists can turn their worries and their confirmation bias into discourse? I’m not going to claim that this discourse is as addictive as heroin, but it clearly exerts a strong attraction. Strong enough to drive earnest and well-meaning writers and film-makers to make arguments based on numbers that are less substantial than the thoughts of … oh, you know, those little orange animals you used to win at fairgrounds.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.


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Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

I don’t quite share your optimism over the benign effects of some of our technologies, especially smartphones, but I think your piece was quite devilishly funny, and it definitely made me think about all this afresh, so thanks.
I would encourage you not to be so fish-ist though. Your obvious bigotry toward goldfish with your “gormless-looking fish” was simply unacceptable in such a noble, politically correct forum as Unherd. For some reason this put me into a strangely delicious state where I felt both a protective fondness for goldfish – a new one for me – and a guilty inability to stop giggling. Excellent stuff!

3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Were you paying attention? I don’t see where he glamorizes technology but quite a historical account of our perspective as a collective to the technologies of any particular time

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Perhaps my wording was unclear to you. I never said he “glamorised” tech (can’t quite see where you got that one – were you paying attention? Forgive me, that was indeed a little snarky). I was trying to say that I think the smartphone may well have some of the claimed negative effects in the article, although the author seemed to be doubting this. However, I’m open to be persuaded otherwise.

Marwan abdel M
Marwan abdel M
2 years ago

I wish I had time to read all of the following studies, and maybe study their methods more, but a quick reading says they prove that there is a relation between the decrease of attention and internet addiction:
And those are just a few of them that I could find right now.

Last edited 2 years ago by Marwan abdel M