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Wired and worried

06 January 2015

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Our ability to multitask online may be all in the mind, writes James Donald.

Here’s a challenge for you: can you read to the end of this article without being interrupted to respond to an urgent email, send a tweet or finding some other way to multitask?

Communications technologies are giving us all something we desperately want: attention. As humans, we are the most socially conscious of all species. MRI scans have shown that the areas of the brain associated with social awareness are active even in newborn babies, moments after birth. Social media gives us the social attention we want, 24/7.

Recent scientific research has found that when a human isn’t engaging directly in their immediate activity, they’re thinking about social issues: themselves, other people and the relationship between both. It’s known as ‘default mode’. Researchers from Harvard estimate this to be about 47 per cent of an average human’s waking day. In this context, social media meets a big need and it’s no coincidence that uptake rates are so rapid.

Yet excessive media use (video clip-watching, texting, gaming and emailing) is associated with significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety. Other research has found that social media use is linked with narcissistic tendencies. There’s even a new disorder called ‘phantom vibration syndrome’, perceived vibration from a phone that isn’t actually vibrating, reflecting the anxiety associated with chronic media use. So although it meets a basic need, over-use of social media hurts us.

It also lowers our performance. A fascinating study by Clifford Nass and colleagues at Stanford University compared high-volume media multitaskers with low media multitaskers on a range of tests of task performance. To their surprise, they found that the multitaskers had worse memory, less focus and… were worse at multitasking. The researchers reasoned that multitasking undermines people’s ability to prioritise competing calls on one’s attention, which, in turn, undermines task performance.

One area where our ‘always on’ culture has particular costs is the workplace. In the current economic climate, employees are commonly being asked to do more with less and technology facilitates this. I recently met a senior construction executive at a conference who said he worked until 10 pm or later every night. “Is all that work critical?” I asked. “Some of it is, but most is not”, he replied. “Everyone sends stuff, day and night – we’re a global business… you kind of feel like you don’t want to miss out.”

Despite the flexibility this technology brings, there is evidence, especially from developed nations, that employees are struggling to cope effectively with the demands placed on them. This, in turn, spills over into greater workplace absenteeism and turn-over rates. A recent Australian study estimated that stress-related workplace absenteeism and presenteeism cost the Australian economy around AUD $14.8 billion in 2008.

So where does this leave us - other than feeling even more worried than if we hadn’t read this article, and just multi-tasked instead? More than anything, the challenge lies in how we manage our attention. Time magazine recently reported on the ‘mindfulness revolution’ gripping in the West. This is no coincidence. Skills like mindfulness and similar attention-training techniques are critical for helping people manage our always on culture. And there is a large and growing body of evidence to support this. Mindfulness training has been shown to be associated with lower stress levels, greater focus and task performance, improved memory and increased persistence.

Some of the world’s most successful organisations, such as Google, Apple, Sony and Deutche Bank realise this and have invested in training their staff in attention and emotional regulation. Mindfulness programs are cropping up everywhere in OECD countries as part of countries’ health policies. Notable examples are the UK’s .b program, which has received support from the UK parliament, and Australia’s Smiling Mind program, an app that teaches mindfulness to school kids.

But there is still a long way to go. Government and organisational health policy that advances greater attentional regulation among students and employees are much-needed.

So the next time you find yourself in the all-to-familiar place of trying to meet too many of your social needs at once, spare a thought - and perhaps some attention - for your attentional needs. After all, did you make it through this piece in one uninterrupted sitting?

Read more about science and technology policy and health policy at Policy Forum – the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

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