The Age of Distraction

The internet has changed the fundamentals of how we’ve live. Understanding what changed can tell us where to go next.

The term “age of distraction” first appeared in a major news source in the New York times on May 4, 2009. It appeared in a seemingly quaint article titled “Ear Plugs to Lasers: The Science of Concentration” by John Tierney. Looking back, 2009 feels like a lifetime ago: a quaint idyllic time where life was simpler and people were happier. Since then, several books have started to use the term – the first being a book titled “The Age of Distraction” by Professor Robert Hassan in late 2011.

Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that these voices may have been right at the time, but were clearly prophetic about the days to come. With more sources than ever fighting for our attention (conveniently monetized by digital ads), we have endless printed, audio, video, and game-based content at the tip of our fingers. Yet this build-up hasn’t happened all at once: the content has piled upon itself as the platforms supporting them have become more robust.

The Content Expansion

Let’s take the example of YouTube: 2009 YouTube was popular, but a fraction of the size it is today. Just to give you a sense: in 2010, 24 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day. By 2015, this number had climbed to 400 hours of video uploaded each minute. That’s an incredible expansion! While latest numbers aren’t available, YouTube’s library of content has surely expanded quite steadily since 2015.

Looking back, we can identify when the amount of content bombarding us started to take its toll on our collective psyche. No matter how much you can filter, you are going to notice a 10x increase in information volume around you.

To get a sense of what this does to us, we can use Google Trends. It is an amazing tool for understanding how the world is thinking, at least going back to 2004 anyway. Doing so paints a very clear picture of how today’s content deluge is impacting us and can pinpoint when the age of distraction truly began.

Being Bored vs Being Overwhelmed

For those who were around the early days of the internet, you probably remember what it was like to be “bored.” Indeed, you’d just type that into Google and see where it took you. Based on this measure, “peak boredom” on the internet was reached in late 2009, and declined sharply through 2012. Since then, it’s declined at a slow-but-steady rate of about 5% per year. Fast forward to today, and “boredom” is at 40% of what it was in 2010.

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Meanwhile, we see signs in many places that mental health issues are on the rise. Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff shared many of these alarming trends in their recent book, the Coddling of the American Mind. And Google Trend data backs up the assertion that we are feeling the effects of the internet age. While we see many trends on the rise for terms like “stressed”, “anxious”, “too busy”, and more, nothing quite captures the current day like the trend for “overwhelmed.” Look back to 2004: search volume for “overwhelmed was less than 20% of it’s volume today. After rising steadily through 2011, it rocketed up to new levels in 2012. Since then, it has remained steady, but it has become a prominent feature in our collective psyche.

Paired together, these trends show how much we’ve changed over the past few years. Taken literally, boredom has declined by 60% while feeling overwhelmed has increased by 500%. With six years on the books of feeling overwhelmed, it’s small wonder the whole world today feels more chaotic and out-of-control than ever before.

Where We Go From Here

Fortunately, humans are quite adaptive beings. For one, entrepreneurs are starting to build the platforms that help us navigate a content-saturated world. While today’s money is made by generating distractions, someone is going to figure out how to extract value from helping you focus instead. Meditation apps like those being made by Sam Harris, Kevin Rose, and Dan Harris are just one example of this. More will come. Apple’s recent capitulation to release screen-time data to its users is another win for anyone looking to reclaim their time toward the pursuits that matter to them.

Today’s world may feel overwhelming, but help is on the way.