Tablets and laptops shorten attention spans

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Smartphones and iPads really do shorten attention spans, a new study warned.

The multi-media devices are changing how the human brain works - making it harder for us to fully understand information.

Reading screens makes users focus on a few concrete details rather than the big picture.

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Seeing the bigger picture is important because it involves flexible reasoning, creativity, judgement and logical problem solving.

The findings presented at a conference for human-computer interaction serve as a wake-up call to how digital media is harming our ability to use abstract thought.

Increasingly classrooms are becoming digital as work is done on computers rather than in notebooks.

The study found over 300 participants recruited for four tests performed better at comprehension and problem solving when they read information on print-outs rather than digital platforms.

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Professor Geoff Kaufman, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, said: “There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility and mindfulness and these studies build on this work by focusing on a relatively understudied construct.

“Given psychologists have shown construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit it’s crucial to recognise the role digitisation of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition.”

Construal levels are the fundamental amount of concreteness versus abstractness people use in perceiving and interpreting behaviours, events and other informational stimuli.

The researchers wanted to know if processing the same information on a digital versus non-digital platform would affect this.

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Reading material and other content was published using the same print size and format in both versions with volunteers aged 20 to 24 years.

Participants were asked to do a series of tasks including filling in a form, reading a short story and comparing different car models - either on paper or on a computer screen.

Those given print-outs paper were much better at understanding the whole material while those using computers remembered particular details.

In a comprehension test about a short story those who had read it in print fared far better in questions about the story’s inferences and broader narrative while those who had read the digital document retained more information about minor details.

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When evaluating the specifications of four fictional cars, 66 per cent of those who had read the comparison on paper could correctly say which was the best model, against 43 per cent of those who had read it on a computer.

For the abstract questions participants using the non-digital platform scored higher on average with 66 percent correct as compared to those using the digital platform - 48 per cent.

On the concrete questions participants using the digital platform scored better with 73 per cent correct as compared to 58 per cent correct.

The study on digital versus non-digital platforms was prompted by earlier research which revealed players of the digital version of the public health strategy game “POX: Save the People” were more inclined to respond with localised solutions rather than looking at the big picture.

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Professor Mary Flanagan, of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said: “Compared to the widespread acceptance of digital devices as evidenced by millions of apps, ubiquitous smartphones and the distribution of iPads in schools surprisingly few studies exist about how digital tools affect our understanding - our cognition.

“Knowing the affordances of digital technologies can help us design better software.

“Sometimes it’s beneficial to foster abstract thinking and as we know more we can design to overcome the tendencies - or deficits - inherent in digital devices.”

The research is being presented at the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) ‘16 conference in San Jose in California.

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