Do you ever find yourself on the web at work browsing endlessly for non-work-related things? Perhaps you are stuck searching for your best friend’s birthday gift at work. You may be in class browsing through Instagram or watching one TikTok video after another. Either way, let’s face it: you have a short attention span. But you are not alone; almost all of us do!

First, how did we get here? Social media has transformed the way we consume information through the stimulation of digital marketing and short-form entertainment. Since the early 2000s, the internet has introduced an abundance of online tools. It gave us LinkedIn and MySpace in 2003. From there, Facebook launched, followed by YouTube and Twitter. Today, we have so many platforms it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all at the same time! You might have Pinterest for your creative inspirations. Instagram and Snapchat allow you to share all about your person-doings with the world and see what friends and family are up to. Flickr and VSCO tagged along for photo sharing and editing.

In recent years, TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity, surpassing other apps in entertaining and bringing joy to people in bite-sized mobile videos. Today, anyone with a phone has the power to challenge their creative intuitions and transform the way the public consumes information. Crafting and compressing information in 15-60 second increments at a time sounds like a dream come true, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. Digital media has become more promotional than personal. It has shifted from being a social cyberspace to a saturated hub of content production.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, technological consumption of this caliber was unimaginable. Back then, email and blogging were just becoming popular. With the simple click of a button, we allow these platforms to publish millions of bites and frames per second. The reality is all convenience advances come at a cost; a tradeoff is always involved. Attention Spans Research conducted by Microsoft shows that since 2000, the average person’s attention space decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in 2013; that is 1 second less than a goldfish! When looking at addictive behaviors in how people are utilizing technology and consuming digital content, Microsoft also reported that 77% of people surveyed testified to picking up their phone being the first thing they do when they’re not preoccupied with something else. And even when preoccupied with other tasks, we all try to multitask, at times successfully but oftentimes not.

While we may think there’s no harm in spending 5 minutes laughing at 15-60 second TikTok videos, those 5 innocent minutes can become dangerous. They can easily turn into 30 minutes or more of scrolling, video after video. Next thing you know, an hour has gone by that you could have devoted towards a time-sensitive assignment. Where did all that time go? That’s when the line between our personal lives and our professional environment begins to blur. While digital platforms help us stay more connected and be more efficient, they also slow us down. Microsoft’s research conveys that 37% of all surveyed Canadians reported not making the best use of their time at work or school. As a result, they find themselves working late nights or on weekends. This percentage was higher among 18–24-year-olds. Consuming this many snippets of digital content at once dismisses our productivity and ability to focus.

For the past two decades, we have depended heavily on digital media. We use it to communicate with our loved ones, tell stories, and connect instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. Still, consequences remain on the flip side: we consume more information than we retain. Young tech-savvy people are at most risk of a lower ability to pay attention. Consuming an excessive amount of digital content regresses the attention span of younger generations. They retain less passive information for unbroken periods of time.

Today, fewer people are capable of fully immersing themselves into a task or paying attention for longer, uninterrupted periods of time. Think about the last time you went to the movie theater or read a book for an extended amount of time? I bet it’s hard to think of a time you engaged in those activities without ever looking at your phone to engage with notifications or scroll through your feed. Despite the benefits of digital media, a universal truth still remains. Increasing our consumption of bite-sized, superficial content may be doing us more harm than good. This consumption does not only limit our knowledge growth. In fact, it can easily lead to a surplus of unproductive time.

So how can we make better use of our time? While there may be no universal answer, we can all try to challenge ourselves to be present. Though difficult, setting boundaries makes stronger individuals. Just as we sometimes have to plan our schedule in our day, we have to be selective towards that which we give our attention. Next time you have the option to engage in various activities at once for an extended period of time, ask yourself: which activity deserves my full attention and why? What can I do to avoid distractions and practice sustained attention toward selective tasks? You will see that you will start to feel more at ease and fulfilled when you chose to live free of distractions. Handling fewer distractions at a time will provide us with a more gratifying experience at work, school, and in any social setting.