Pay Close Attention To This Story (If You Can)

Pay Close Attention To This Story (If You Can)

As American multi-tasking is on the rise, so are ADHD diagnoses

When it comes to theories about how media is influencing the evolution of humans, the debate gets caught up in a sort of Catch-22 logic. Scientists who study the physiological evolution of species say it takes a minimum of tens of thousands of years for physical adaptations to manifest in a species. And the oldest recorded media we know of - the cave paintings of our earliest ancestors - date back only about 40,000 years. Moreover, the kind of media that are most likely accelerating the pace of human evolution - modern electronic media - are only about a century old. And the kind that have been hyper-accelerating change - powerful, computerized, globally distributed media - been around a lot less longer than that.

The problem with that logic is that it excludes a very important piece of our anatomy that we know is being changed by media: our brains. The evolutionists will argue that while media does change the wiring of our brains, it doesn't necessarily do it in a way that is genetic, meaning that they are adaptive traits that can be passed on physiologically to succeeding generations. That logic is a problem, because human evolution is likely being driven by cultural factors that are actually the result of media, and they are clearly being passed on from generation to generation, influencing and re-influencing every person that comes after them. We may not understand exactly what the message was of those early cave paintings, but we know that it likely played a role in helping early humans to share and spread information, which helped them organize and develop the skills that enabled them to compete successfully with rival species - especially other early hominids - that no longer exist today.

Media may be becoming our most significant evolutionary factor, because it influences how we think and feel, and that affects how we behave. And as we evolve how we think and feel, our behaviors have been proved to have a great deal of influence over our physical world - whether it was the discovery of fire, electricity, thermonuclear power, or the ability to peer into the cosmos and even venture out to them.

While the physiological adaptation resulting from media may take tens of thousands of years to be proved, some interesting anecdotal evidence has begun to manifest, and it has some media industry professionals, and cultural anthropologists intrigued.

In 2007, while speaking to a group of journalists and securities analysts at an investors' conference in New York, CBS research chief Dave Poltrack presented some interesting data showing how "digitally connected" consumers were beginning to change. Poltrack defined those consumers as people who subscribed to broadband Internet access and digital subscription TV services, and at the time, he said they represented the digital elite within the mass population. The most interesting part of his presentation was a slide showing how that they had an unusually high correlation of prescriptions for ADD/ADHD medicines.

Poltrack said he used the data as a joke, but it made an important point: As the type and amount of media people use begins to accelerate, so might the way the humans who use them do.

As far back as the late 1960s psychologists, especially child psychologists, began looking at the role that modern media was playing in people's attention spans. As the supply of media began to accelerate - as well as the format of some new media content - they reasoned that the way people's brains worked might also change. By the early 1970s, theories were abounding that the accelerated pace of media was beginning to alter the way our brains process information and whether it could be contributing to the rise of ADD and ADHD. One thing is clear: Diagnosis of those disorders has risen since then, as have prescriptions of drugs to treat them, and media most likely has played a role. If not in actually causing it, media has helped fuel the debate surrounding the attention deficit debate, including whether media has contributed to it.

"Media has fueled the debate on both sides," says Ira Haimowitz, executive vice president and group director of intelligence and analytics at the CementBloc, an independent agency specializing in pharmaceutical marketing. He says media has clearly played a role in making people aware of attention disorders, which may actually influence diagnosis and treatment of it. Because it is a clinical diagnosis, and one often made for children by their parents and physicians, some critics argue that media coverage has helped spawn an epidemic by simply making people more aware of it. On a more insidious basis, Haimowitz notes that media have also influenced the commercial side of treatment, as big pharmaceutical companies have poured marketing dollars into promoting their attention-deficit remedies to doctors, and even helped develop better screening systems to help them diagnosis it more easily. On the flip side, he says critics of attention deficit have also successfully been using media - especially social media - in an effort to combat what they claim to be an over-diagnosis of it.

As far as an actual correlation between the acceleration of media stimuli and attention disorder, Haimowitz says there is plenty of research on that going back to the 1970s, but that the jury is still out on its actual cause.

"There's no question that the multichannel nature of our media world is impacting us and changing how we behave. But is it contributing to a disease like ADHD? That depends on how you define ADHD, clinically, and there is still a lot of debate about that."

Putting aside the ADHD debate, some people believe that human behavior is simply adapting to a new environment - a media environment where it is increasingly necessary to process more quick bursts of information in order to be successful, and, yes, survive. While those qualities might be seen as disorders when manifested among young people in an academic environment, they are actually seen as positive adaptive traits - a form of natural selection, if you will - in other parts of society, especially high-pressure professions where skills at rapidly juggling multiple inputs of fast-moving information are deemed critical to success. Say, on Wall Street, or in the military, where split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death.

Whatever your view of the physiological connection between the acceleration of media and evolution, there is plenty of research to show that it is beginning to rewire our brains, if not our DNA. Cory Treffiletti, a founder of San Francisco agency Catalyst S+F, has been studying that closely for years, and he believes the process may be accelerating with new generations of media consumers who grew up with digital media. Years ago, while a top digital executive at Carat, Treffiletti says he did some research on the generational differences of media multitasking and found that people above the age of 35 could successfully utilize 1.8 forms of media simultaneously, while younger adults were "adept at more like 2.8 media formats at any given time."

Treffiletti says it was about that same time that Carat partnered with Yahoo to do some related research on the subject. Their collaboration, the 2004 "Born to Be Wired" study, showed there were distinct differences between the so-called Millennial generation that grew up with online and digital media, and the generations who preceded them.

"Younger people are raised to multitask," he says, noting, "If you add up the hours they spend in a day with media, it exceeds the amount of time they are awake, so multitasking is just how they operate. Children and young adults today are raised with a fragmented attention span, and they somehow function in that way. Older audiences are more attuned to focus on a smaller set of input - that's how they function."

Treffiletti says it's a matter of opinion whether such media multitasking is a negative or a positive trait for people, but that people clearly seem to be moving in that direction.

"Focus is extremely important," he says, adding that younger people are drawing conclusions and opinions "faster" than people did before.

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