The Impact of Our Shortening Attention Spans

By Mandy Snyder

The noise quiets down and you bust out your colored pens. The professor begins to lecture and you rush to scribble down notes, capturing his every word. After five minutes have passed, you start to wonder what time it is, and what’s on B-Plate’s lunch menu. Maybe your attention wanders to the kid who showed up in Heelys. You reach for your phone. You reach for your phone. Many students find it nearly impossible to listen to lectures without picking up their phones at some point or to concentrate on one thing for extended periods of time. Contrast this to the appeal of instant gratification from a Tik Tok punchline, which a slow burn like a book can’t deliver, and we start to identify a cycle of distraction and diminishing concentration.

It is not a novel idea that our generation’s attention spans are shortening. As we move through different media platforms from television to YouTube, and now, to Tik Tok, there is seemingly no end in sight to how condensed our entertainment will become. And this shortening attention span doesn’t just manifest itself in technological entertainment. In literature, too, there is a gradual abandonment of prose for punchier, straight-to-the-action writing. Even trends don’t last as long anymore: a 2019 study by the Technical University of Denmark found that a Twitter trend in 2013 lasted on average 17.5 hours, and only three years later lasted on average 11.9 hours. The same study found that the endless supply and nature of the media we consume creates “content fatigue” and contributes to how quickly we get bored with one topic. Professor Sune Lehmann from the study explained that “it seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.”

The pitfalls of instant gratification have been lamented at length. Traditional developmental psychology observes that children and adolescents who can delay gratification have more control over their actions and maintain healthier relationships. The need to check one’s phone or respond to an email immediately in the presence of others affects our ability to read emotions and effectively communicate face-to-face. Most people are unaware of these incremental shifts in behavior. Those individuals that are aware enough of their shortened attention span may try implementing certain techniques in their own life to rebuild concentration. However, without some sort of institutional framework, there are few formal means for most to try to remediate their damaged ability to focus. So then, should our educational system try to do anything about it?

In collegiate life, a shortening attention span has consequences. Our need for instant gratification combined with the accessibility of the internet often leads us to give up on problems a lot sooner and turn to online resources. Instead of laboring over a physics problem using our deductive skills, or analyzing a piece of literature using our critical thinking, we can easily turn to Slader or Sparknotes. This undermines the patience needed to develop problem-solving ability. Students also suffer from unsophisticated language acquisition and a weakened ability to retain information. If students are unable to concentrate for long periods of time, the quality of their work in the long-term will deteriorate. After all, designing satellites or writing the next great movie script requires more than a fifteen-second attention span.

Whether in short-messaged texts or the character limits of a tweet, the reduction of written language goes hand in hand with an inability to focus. When we shorten the means by which we express thoughts and build critical arguments, it follows that we also impair our ability to conceptualize and flesh out complex issues. If we do not have the words to fully describe an idea, and we do not have the concentration to scrape past the surface of a question, how are we to produce nuanced and thorough expositions? With constant distractions emanating from every device we own, there is little room left for prolonged observation. If we cannot be aware of the world around us for sustained periods of time, we atomize our existence and erode our ability to put events in their proper context.

But does this reduction of focus and impoverishment of language correlate with a reduction in the quality of thinking and writing that students produce? I asked Teofilo Ruiz, Distinguished Professor History at UCLA. Ruiz answered that he’s witnessed this firsthand over the course of his 48 years of teaching, and that “there has been research done by neurologists in which they point out that this use of technology is altering brain patterns.” While he emphasized that it doesn’t mean students are not as intelligent, our dwindling attention spans make it impossible for him “to assign the kind of things [he] assigned 30 years ago” as the students will not read it, and now student life has become so crowded with demands that we have less time to complete said readings. He says that with a lack of emphasis on writing or speaking, our rhetorical abilities have suffered, and we are experiencing a “contraction of [our] intellectual world.” Our ability to harness “integrated thinking,” where we relate what we know well with what we are learning, is harmed when we engage in several activities superficially instead of performing one task fully.

It seems that it would be impossible to go backward on this, and it may also seem like a Luddite perspective to want to, as technology has provided widespread access to education and has undeniable benefits in our lives as students. But with no end in sight to how short the media we consume will become (what can be shorter than 15 seconds?), this may have serious consequences on our society. Then the question becomes, Will our educational system do anything about it?

Ruiz agreed that the educational system should do something about it. Unfortunately, universities do not appear to have incentives to address this. Ruiz warned that “the problem is also that universities have become corporate bodies. The purpose of the university now is to make money.” As knowledge and intellect become corporatized, universities’ priorities shift away from the quality of learning and ultimate success of their students and more towards pumping out degrees. Thus, it is unsurprising that educational institutions have yet to confront this issue.

Tackling our waning concentration seems ambitious and given the plethora of issues plaguing our educational system, it might not seem like a priority. It is difficult to foresee the impacts our shortening attention spans might have, given how rapidly digitalization is taking place. But if schools don’t address students’ ability to focus, it could impair our cognitive abilities a lot more down the road, at which point it might be too late to turn back and rewire our brains.

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