Attention Dwindles

Posted: April 4, 2023

Social media wreaks havoc on brains

Eight out of ten people will skim this story’s headline, but only two will read past it. Congratulations! By reading even just to this point, you are part of a small group of over-achievers: the 20%. Maybe you will read even more if you are further enticed. How about a quick trivia game? Question: How long is the average human attention span? You probably need a hint.

On average, dogs can focus on a single activity for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Cats have shorter attention spans that range from two to 15 minutes. Goldfish, with a brain about the size of a peppercorn, have an attention span of nine seconds.

What about you? Has your attention span allowed you to read this far? If so, you are one of an elite few. In 2000, the average American attention span was 12 seconds. Now it’s 8 seconds. That’s one second less than that of a goldfish, according to a 2015 Microsoft report. While the details of the goldfish study have been disputed, the larger point that attention spans have been in decline has been widely observed and commented on.

What triggered this sudden collapse? The most obvious culprit: technology. YouTube shorts, Instagram reels, Apple News, Tik Tok, all forms of media that lure us in with quick bite-sized segments of entertainment and news. Scrolling, refreshing, and ever-evolving: social media and news platforms
are competing for just a fragment of our dwindling attention.

Experienced teachers say as technology has exploded, they have witnessed a noticeable decline in
their classrooms. “This is my 19th year [working at Minnehaha],” said Latin teacher and language department chair Johanna Beck. “When I started, it was before students had iPhones. I can tell you that now, students are a lot more distracted [than they were back then].

Students used to have 80-minute class periods, and breaks during classes were unheard of. Teachers could just straight-up lecture to high school students, Beck recalls. “Now when I teach, I do short bursts of things instead of one long lesson,” explained Beck. “The number of times I have to switch gears or redirect students has increased a ton,” she added.

Not long ago, teachers lamented that many students wouldn’t read a book, whether it was Romeo and Juliet or The Hobbit, because their attention span could only handle the movie version. Now, even the movies are excruciatingly long for many teenagers.

“I hate movies, I get bored really easily and restless,” explained junior Greta Johnson. “If I’m watching a movie, I’m on my phone on Instagram or something at the same time.”

Junior Ava Shepherd agreed. “Unless I really, really like a movie and it has a ton of action,” she said, “I can’t do it.”

Academic achievement in a world of distraction

Still reading? Shortened attention span has effects that span far beyond the breadth of the classroom. American teenagers report spending twice as much time on homework than their predecessors did back in 1990, according to a 2019 article in The Atlantic. Given this reality, the probing question is whether students are really getting more work, or whether the assigned homework is just taking them longer to complete assignments than it did two decades ago.

“I literally never study unless my parents make me…like unless I’m actually forced to,” admitted sophomore Finley Lefebvre. “I’ve struggled with having a short attention span my entire life. It makes it extremely difficult to be productive without a study strategy,” noted junior Trent Page.

How to become a straight-A student

Decreased attention span together with the rise of social media and an influx of poor study habits make excelling in school a difficult feat. In response to this reality, Cal Newport, in his 2006 book How to Become a Straight-A Student, shares advice for student success based on a series of interviews with straight-A college students, but adaptable to all grade levels.

A computer science professor at Georgetown University, Newport is not “preachy” and does not repeat the same advice retold since middle school. Instead, in Newport’s model, “you won’t find any mention of the Cornell note-taking method, mental map diagrams, or any other ‘optimal learning technique’ crafted in an office or laboratory-environments far removed from the realities of typical college life.”

Simply put, the book is well worth a full read on your own time. But, since your attention is likely dwindling, here is the most stand-out advice.

First, success in school is not about the time you put in, but rather the quality of the work you are doing. In fact, straight-A students study less than their peers. Rather than cramming for six hours in the library, they work in short focused bursts. Second, Newport emphasizes the importance of planning. Not planning out every second of every day, but instead writing out a simple short to-do list every morning to keep control of many different obligations you might have floating around. Last, Newport covers tactics high-achieving students use to combat procrastination.

The most interesting may be the advice from Laura, a straight-A student studying at Dartmouth, who suggests “making an event” out of a daunting project or paper you are dreading by changing your environment. As she notes, in a coffee shop or a public space it feels awkward to not be working, so inevitably you end up getting more done.

Newport’s book is extraordinarily well written, and his advice will help many succeed academically in an era of distraction and technology. Newport’s more recent books include Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019).

Large scale implications

As time progresses, researchers are learning more about how our shortened attention spans have implications that seep into all aspects of life. Johann Hari, in Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again (2023), dives into some of the long-term effects our shortened attention spans carry.

On the podcast Late Night Live, Hari told host Phillip Adams, “I started to see some quite startling facts. For every one child who was identified as having serious attention problems when I was 7 years old, there is now 100 in that position.”

He later went on to state that “57% of Americans haven’t read a book in a year.”

A personal reflection

When I first heard this statistic it was so startling I had to go back and listen again. To my surprise, I heard Hari correctly. Fifty-seven percent of Americans have not completed a book in a year. I don’t know about you, but this future terrifies me. I am scared of growing up in a world where the voices of Jane Austen and J.D Salinger are stifled and replaced by 10-second videos, full of flashing lights and plot twists. A world where genuine deep conversations are too time-consuming to be of relevance, and where the privilege of education is seen as grueling and boring.

By this point in the article, statistics say if I’m lucky I will have retained 11% of original readers.

Teenagers are so often blamed for this attention epidemic, scorned and scoffed at, told to get off of our phones and concentrate. When, in reality, it was adults who put this very technology in our hands, fully aware of its malefic capabilities. Teenagers are not to blame, we are merely products of a broken environment. One, we ourselves, did not break.

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