There is no such thing as multitasking, only multi failing! My children grew up hearing this from me almost every day. I’m passionate about raising awareness around the impact of technology on our relationships and our children’s development, and the use of social media and its impact on mental health. Research shows that, on average, a student in the US pays attention to one thing for just 19 seconds, and they switch tasks once every 35 seconds; another study shows that an adult working in an office stays on one task for three minutes. And yet we know from previous research that it takes something like 23 minutes for our brains to fully switch attention from one task to another! We are creating a pathogenic culture and environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard to achieve. We have to consistently swim upstream to stay focused. This is a worrying trend, and it begs the question: what is the impact of this cognitive degradation on us and our children? The problem is occurring at two levels: #1 At a personal level The inability to pay sustained attention affects our daily goals and our life goals. Attention is important in all aspects of our lives – in our relationships, passions, hobbies, and in our sense of achievement, fulfilment and connectedness. If you can’t pay attention, you’re less able to form meaningful connections and more likely to have only surface level experiences. Focus C l i n i c a l p sycho l og i s t DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI looks at howwe’re losing the knack of paying attention, and wonders if it’s time for a sabbatical from our screens.

#2 At a collective level What is happening at the individual level is happening to society as a whole: that is, our problem-solving abilities are being hugely impacted. People who can’t focus are usually drawn to simplistic solutions to problems that are authoritarian, angry and reactive. At a time when we need sensible solutions more than ever, there is a lack of nuance and lack of respect of other people’s opinions and an inability to consider their perspectives. It’s important that we become aware of these impacts on an individual level as well as a collective societal level so that we can hopefully begin to take small steps towards helping our children and the next generation be more attentive and empathetic. Why are attention spans waning? In the past, we might have grown up with the concept of paying attention to one task at a time. Today, though, we live with perpetual information overload. The increase in the volume and pace of information creates a sense of the world speeding up. It’s exhausting, and it comes at the cost of the quality, depth and meaning of the information and our understanding of it. The capacity of the human brain hasn’t significantly changed. We are biologically wired to pay attention to a single task, and we can only have one or two thoughts at one time. The “switch-cost effect” refers to the time it takes for our brains to reconfigure when switching from task to task. When you get distracted from a task and then turn back to it, you have to recall all your thoughts about it. When this happens, performance drops. If you’re receiving texts or social media updates while trying to work, for example, you’re not just losing those seconds or minutes, you’re also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards. And you’re also more prone to making mistakes.



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