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Attention Deficit in an Attention Economy

Is the market for your attention contributing to generations of adults with attention deficit disorders?

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder characterized by a pattern of inattention, distractibility and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with daily functioning (PSYCOM). It also affects memory as well (Therapy Changes).

Sounds like our modern life in general these days, doesn’t it?

According to a study by Kaiser Permanente of Northern California of 5,282,877 adult records published in JAMA Network Open, the incidence of adult cases of ADHD has increased from 2.96% to 3.74% in 2016 — a 123.3% increase. For children in the study, while the prevalence of diagnoses of ADHD were higher (4.78% overall) the increase in children was only 26.4% during the same period.

It is clear that there is something going on with the adult population in recent years.

While not diagnosed with ADHD myself (I have other issues), I often experience trouble with inattentiveness and impulsivity, especially while trying to concentrate on work or other tasks that require my full attention. I am sure many of you have also experienced this, to the point of wondering if you need to get professional help. I know I have.

And, the attention economy is not helping.

There are a million ways every day that our attention is milked for profit. Between the constant algorithmically-powered advertising “social” media platforms that have hacked our brains for dopamine-driven profit, messaging apps (I use at least two every day for work), emails that must be answered, text-messages, phone apps with their constant notifications (I turn mine off for the most part), open-office workplaces, and God-knows-what-else we encounter every day, it’s no wonder we can’t seem to just — focus!

Yes, I know there’s an app for that too! I have worn out my noise-cancelling headphones with Chillstep music and the Endel app just to be able to get any real work done. But that’s not the point.

While it has not been established that our technology use causes ADHD, it has been observed that the competing demands for our attention driven by our dependence on digital technology increases the severity of ADHD symptoms. Within the psychological community it is generally thought that ADHD is largely a genetic disorder not caused by environmental factors (Therapy Changes).

Oh, but come on!

Common sense and your experience should tell you that being bombarded with more than 100,000 distracting ads, notifications and media looking to make money from your attention every day isn’t a great help for your mental well-being!

The point of this little rant is that, as a marketer and designer, I have to ask myself what ethical responsibility I have in perpetuating this problem. What can I do to minimize the distractibility of the projects I work on? Does my work contribute to the rise in ADHD and associated anxiety disorders, or does it help ease them?

What can I do to minimize the harm done to my fellow humans?

What can you do?