Though we often accuse the young of having a short attention span, it turns out this is not confined to that generation. Only a couple of us get past the headline to the main story. That main article, so tricky to access on some phones, might either give real depth to the "shouty" headline or, in fact, undermine it.
If you were one of the majority who didn’t get past WITF’s recent "shouty" headline, you would have read only that "Technology is changing the Millennial brain". Yet the story reads: "'I think it's very possible' that technology alters the brain, said Kirk Erickson, principal investigator of the Brain Aging & Cognition Health Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, 'but we haven't yet directly linked these things.'"
Not as definite as the headline says, then. It is possible, but not proven.
Many experts working in neuroscience agree that it is a very new field, with more suppositions than proven findings. David Eagleman, soon to hit our screens with a six-part series that "provides a whistle-stop tour" of the brain and with a new book out this month, says he is acutely aware of neuroscience’s limitations: "It is surrounded by mysteries."
Any assertion about brains needs careful examination. There are strategic decisions for our industry in the medium term that depend on knowledge about how target audiences' brains work. Decisions about content development, media formats and hardware investment.
The strategist Eaon Pritchard refutes these "millennial brain rewired" claims, putting them down to an age-old fondness among grown-ups to disparage the ways of the young. This is, indeed, an ancient human habit. Cicero coined the phrase "O tempora, o mores" as the first millennium dawned to deplore modern manners. Five thousand years earlier, this was written in an Egyptian tomb: "We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control."
There are headlines around saying the internet has produced a generation "addicted to quick fixes of info nuggets, self-obsessed, averse to any critical analysis, making shallow choices and chasing instant gratification". In reality, short attention spans are not confined to the young and whether the internet is changing our true nature is very much up for debate.
Pritchard shares my cynicism. Rather than our brains adapting to the internet, the very opposite is as likely to be true. The aspects of the web that are successful are those that adapt to how our brains work and have worked for centuries. For example, Facebook enables us to keep in touch with everyone we know all the time. Until the second half of the last century, that is how most people lived: at the heart of their local communities and constantly informed about the daily goings-on of their friends and families. Net-A-Porter allows the dress to come to the shopper rather than the shopper having to go to the high street, which was how things operated (if you could afford it) until the last century too.
This understanding is important. It affects the communications strategies of brands targeting millennials now but also in the future, when that generation have grown up and settled down with kids of their own. Including content that really works on our phones (past the headlines!). The success of new developments in software and, more crucially, hardware in the next few years is more likely to rest on how good they are at responding to our instincts and emotional needs than on some theory about brains being rewired. The internet successes will be those that serve us, not the ones that we supposedly adapt to.
Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom
- This article originally appeared in MediaWeek.