Although the “millennial” generation remains a loose concept without a precise definition, criticising young people’s lifestyles, spending habits, political views, and relationships to technology is as popular as ever, and the age-old eye roll at the “new generation” has never been stronger. In fact, recent research may indicate that the brains of millennials could be wired differently, due to their use of modern technology and their lifestyle habits.
Much of this research is pessimistic about the millennial mind. A 2015 report by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada appeared to indicate that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish, down to just a pitiful 8 seconds compared to the goldfish’s 9 seconds. This was immediately picked up on by the media, and smartphones were given the blame. However, all is not as it seems. For a start, the figures on human attention span that were so widely reported may not have come from Microsoft Canada at all, but from another, more dubious organisation with vague sources for their figures.
Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, wholeheartedly disagrees with the idea that attention spans have been getting shorter. In her opinion, the idea of an “average attention span” is fairly useless. “It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.” Furthermore, the very notion that there exists an average length of time for which an individual can concentrate even on a specific task has been disproved. Interestingly, there appears to be no evidence that goldfish possess a particularly short attention span either. Moreover, Microsoft has found that millennials have an increased capacity for multitasking compared to the older generations, a development which seems to be driven by modern use of technology.
Applicants for Experimental Psychology or PBS and those interested in Neuroscience should consider the potential impact of how we use technology on our mental habits and patterns of brain activity, and think about how tests could be carried out to observe this.