Is multi-screening diluting our attention span and wrecking our brain?

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It’s becoming increasingly clearer that the Irish consumer is a second screen fiend, constantly doing two things at one time.

According to Google, the average number of online devices in the home has increased in the past two years to 3.1 on average. The practice of media stacking is increasingly the norm. Even now, as I write this, the T.V. is on in the background, and my phone could buzz at any second.

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This is now the accepted way to use digital devices. In fact, engaging with just one digital device at a time is an increasingly rare occurrence. According to Eircom’s Household Sentiment Survey, as many as three quarters (74%) of Irish 16-24 year olds admit to often posting or tweeting on a different topic while watching TV. Amongst the wider population this extends to one third of people.

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Companion apps and sites like Zeebox (now Beamly) GetGlue, TV3’s Showpal and countless others have attempted to monetise the trend, while trending topics on Twitter and Facebook regularly include shows like Love/Hate – media brands like RTE actively promote second screening.

This distracted viewing has long been seen as a positive for advertisers and brands, a way to extend the conversation through T.V. into an online experience.

But up until now, very few people are actually asking the question, what is this rise in media multitasking doing to our overworked brains?

First, let’s look at a scientific fact.

Just like self-control, psychologists have found time and time and time and time again, that attention is a limited resource, and often multi-tasking actually defeats its own purpose. Frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually not doing lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.

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Now think about it. When you’re second screening, are you really taking in both sources of media? Or are you aimlessly browsing Twitter while the T.V. buzzes and flickers in the background, not really concentrating on anything at all?

In a culture where constant stimulation is basically a given, one has to wonder if second-screen technology simply whittles our attention spans down even further. In Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows‘ the writer describes how, just like the incessant interruption from email during our working day, “each glance away from the T.V. or laptop/tablet represents a small interruption of thoughts, a momentary re-deployment of mental resources. The cognitive cost of this can be high. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious.”

Similarly, in her book ‘Distracted‘ Maggie Jackson explains how switching between two tasks substantially increases our cognitive load, and increases the likelihood that we’ll misinterpret the important information – “the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out interference from the previous, still vivid activity” according to Jackson.

Worryingly, new research on second screening is also emerging to back this theory up.

According to a very recent study from University of Tokyo in Japan, media multitasking, or the concurrent consumption of multiple media forms, has “been associated with decreased cognitive control abilities, as well as negative psychosocial impacts such as depression and social anxiety, negative social well-being, and poor academic performance”. Like social media, it’s literally changing the shape of our brains, and causing, according to the researchers, a “regional variability in grey and white matter”.

While we as marketers may marvel at the rise of seconds screening and the opportunities it offers us to extend campaigns, perhaps we, as a society, should look at what second screening is doing to our plastic brains, and our ever dimming attention spans.