How’s this for a factoid: The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a recent study by Microsoft, people lose concentration after a mere eight seconds. That’s down from 12 seconds just 15 years ago, a precipitous drop. That’s right, the digital age has left us less able to focus than a creature with gills.
Screens of every sort—cellphones, tablets, desktops—are splitting our attention. Each screen, with its links and distractions (often irrelevant but almost always irresistible), eats away at our ability to think coherently Magnify that by multitasking with multi screens, and it’s a wonder we can hold a thought for long at all. Then add to that our addiction to devices and the withdrawal symptoms we suffer when we have to go without. It’s like that mirror-in-a-mirror effect. And the younger generation has it the worst, according to the study. When asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” 77 percent of people under 24 said “yes,” compared with only 10 percent of people over 65.
Today’s tweens and teens spend up to nine hours a day on TVs and computers, tablets and cell phones, excluding school and homework. But even when they’re using devices to study, screens are still eroding our children’s ability to concentrate, says Martin Kutscher, MD, author of the book Digital Kids: How to Balance Screen Time, and Why it Matters. I call it digital attention deficit disorder, and Dr. Kutscher explained exactly how and why it’s happening.
One teacher survey found that 90 percent of them feel technology has created a distracted generation of students with short attention spans. And there’s good reason for that, says Dr. Kutscher: “For one, screens lack the tactile experience, which helps you absorb material. Two, hypertexts lead you to jump from one spot to another, while research has shown that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more. Third, moving around from author to author, or subject to subject—the average web page holds a reader for all of 18 seconds—leads to shallow reading. There’s less time for them to stop and ponder what they’ve just read, or think and reason logically.”

And all that happens when our kids are using just a single device. Figure in multitasking with texts, social media or music while doing homework—which, regrettably, is the new normal—and the problems multiply. “There’s a triple whammy,” says Dr. Kutscher. “First, there is the time to answer the interruption. Second, there is the tremendously wasteful waste of time as your kid regains where he or she was before the interruption. Third, the brain is further slowed down by the energy and stress expended from the whiplash of switching from one activity to another.” The bottom line? As much as our kids think multitasking is efficient and timesaving, it’s actually the opposite. They’ll get their homework done faster, and retain more, if they unplug.

What’s more, the digital downside goes way beyond middle and high school, says Dr. Kutscher. He cites the famous “marshmallow test” of the 1970’s, when kids were offered a treat and told that they could eat it right away, or, if they waited alone for fifteen minutes, they would get two. Follow-up studies until age 40 showed that those children who could control their attention and delay gratification fared better in life, from SAT scores to keeping friends to a healthier body mass index. “When parents teach their kids to get themselves out of the gravitational pull of the screen, we’re helping them develop one of life’s most important skills,” Dr. Kutscher says.

So how do we do that? First, by realizing it’s not our children’s fault if we as parents fail to set limits on their screen time. Second, by cutting ourselves some slack, since we’re the first generation to have to tackle this task and we don’t have a playbook to guide us. Lastly, by doing the work. That means gathering the family, having a conversation and setting up screen time rules together. The app I’ve created, Screen, which lets you remotely control your children’s devices, makes it easy for your family to come up with a contract and stick to it, putting an end to the skirmishes of constantly trying to enforce the rules. And it’s an equal opportunity app—it holds you to same rules as your kids. Which means everyone can’t stop hunching over the screens, sit up and pay attention.