The negative effects of social media and a hectic news cycle on our attention span has been an ongoing discussion in recent years—but there's been a lack of empirical data supporting claims of a 'social acceleration.' A new study in Nature Communications finds that our collective attention span is indeed narrowing, and that this effect occurs not only on social media, but also across diverse domains including books, web searches, movie popularity, and more.
Our public discussion can appear to be increasingly fragmented and accelerated. Sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from a 'fear of missing out,' keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news 24/7. So far, the evidence to support these claims has only been hinted at or has been largely anecdotal. There has been an obvious lack of a strong empirical foundation.
In a new study, conducted by a team of European scientists from Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, University College Cork, and DTU, this empirical evidence has been presented regarding one dimension of social acceleration, namely the increasing rates of change within collective attention.
"It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has, indeed, become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example." says Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute.
[...]"Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual's ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists' ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape. We hope that more research in this direction will inform the way we design new communication systems, such that information quality does not suffer even when new topics appear at increasing rates."
More information: Philipp Lorenz-Spreen et al. Accelerating dynamics of collective attention, Nature Communications (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w [doi.org]
Also at EurekAlert! [eurekalert.org]