The experiment I conducted was to test the attention spans of young adults who use their phones while engaging with other media.
The Google study found that most people spend time using multiple devices, and my experiment focused on simultaneous screening; using multiple devices at the same time. It also found that “TV no longer commands our full attention and has become one of the most common devices that is used simultaneously with other screens.” (Google 2012, p. 2).
Between 2000 and 2013, the human attention span shrunk from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, and it can be attributed to multi-device use. Although, it has had a trade off in that most people who multitask with more than one device have gained higher attention spans, have become better at doing more in less time, and have become more efficient at memorising things.
It was these facts, as well as my own reflexivity which made me acknowledge that also am both obsessive with my phone use and also engage in simultaneous screen watching. I knew that I would struggle to watch an entire episode of a show without using my phone, so I knew the results of the experiment would probably be worthwhile and go on to prove the points of the two articles cited above .
I also wanted to try to find some answers to questions I couldn’t find answers to or theories for in the readings I did. Those questions centred around why adults were being affected by attention spans and device use outside of consumer behaviour. While there were lots of readings about children and the effect of phones on behaviour and attention spans, all of the studies on adult behaviour was around consumer behaviour. I still reference these readings throughout this piece, but I believe there is a gap in academic study which should be addressed.
I approached the experiment with two things in mind; the information from the consumer studies on attention spans, and Torsten Hägerstrands’ time geography theories.
The Microsoft study found young people (18-24) were more prone to addictive technology behaviour. The ages of the people I chose for this experiment fell inside this age group (22, 23 and 24 years old). Previous studies I found from 2012 focused on children the age of 8 and 18. One by the Pew Research Centre, published in an article in the New York Times found:
“nearly 90 percent (of teachers) said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” (Richtel 2012).
I wanted to focus on the next age group up, because of the lack of research in the area and the fact it is one of the age groups most engaged with media and device use with 79% using their phones while watching TV and 77% using their phones whenever something isn’t currently occupying their attention.
The Google report found that the average time people engage with television is 43 minutes, so I chose to show episodes of a television series because they had a duration of 44 minutes and 39 minutes respectively. This meant I wasn’t trying to make my participants pay attention to something for longer than the average amount of time, which would have affected the results.
The experiment also engaged with Hägerstrands’ theory of time and space geography. On a basic level, his theory dictates that the spatial constraints of human activity fall into three categories; capability, coupling and authority, which I have outlined in more detail here.
My experiment tested these three constraints.
Capability: with what we know about human attention spans, the length of engagement with certain media for certain amounts of time and the use of device use while engaging with media, there were certain biological (attention span) and physical (phone use) factors dictating how the subjects in the experiment were going to act.
Coupling: the experiment tested not only being engaged with the space but also with the other people in the space. On the viewing of the show where the phones were allowed to be used, there was some interaction between the subjects (who are all really good friends), but this interaction was limited because the focus was already being split between the phone and television and conversation. On the viewing where the phones were removed, there was much more interaction between the subjects, which they all admitted in the interviews lead to a more pleasurable experience, even though the episode was not necessarily more enjoyable. They also had to be engaged for a certain amount of time (49-44 minutes).
Authority: obviously, there were limitations placed on actions and access to phones by the ‘owner’ (myself). I dictated what they watched, and also was in control of taking and giving back their phones.
Using these theories helped me set up and make decisions about the kind of experiment I would be using. I filmed two separate videos but chose to include them as one video with a running time of 10 minutes, to make the contrast between the two viewings clear.
I conducted interviews with the subjects immediately after the second viewing, asking them about their experience and their own perceptions of their device use. I believe I got honest and accurate answers out of them, and they offered insight into why – a key question for qualitative researchers to ask and find answers to.
In summary, all of the participants admitted to being addicted to their phones and using their phones when engaging with television. They all admitted to being anxious when I removed their phones from them, but all enjoyed the experience more without their phones.
I thought the fact that it only took 43 seconds for someone to pick up their phone was interesting because three of the four started using their phones around this time. I also found it interesting that Lauren used her phone almost constantly during the first viewing and was not engaged at all (she even admitted it), but she was the most engaged during the second viewing without the phone (even giving off a visual reaction when scared and asking questions throughout).
I believe my experiment, which was very relaxed and definitely not infallible, does show that young adults between 18 and 24 are addicted to their phones, and it shows a relationship between phone and device use and having a lesser attention span.
Google 2012, ‘The New Multi-Screen World: Understanding Cross-Platform Consumer Behavior’, <https://ssl.gstatic.com/think/docs/the-new-multi-screen-world-study_research-studies.pdf>
Microsoft Canada 2015, ‘Attention Spans’, Consumer Insights, <https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/649091/mod_resource/content/1/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf>
Richtel, M 2012, ‘Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say’, The New York Times, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html>
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ‘Reflexivity’, Qualitative Research Guidelines Project, <http://www.qualres.org/HomeRefl-3703.html>