We are surrounded by profuse gadgets that our interest or focus on a particular task is ephemeral. I, for instance, would check my emails and messages on my phone/computer once every 5 minutes. It’s clear that I would not receive 100 emails or messages within that short time. Nevertheless, my propensity to check them never ceases. However, is the omnipresence of technological devices the only reason to blame for our decreasing attention span?
No. Stress and decision overload have also been identified as culprits for our dwindling attention span (Gaille, 2013). So, what is an attention span? An attention span is the duration of time dedicated to a particular task before our mind drifts away from it (Culverhouse, 2009). According to the National Center for biotechnology information, the average attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds (Attention Span Statistics, n.d). 8 seconds! That is even shorter than that of a goldfish, with an attention span of 9 seconds (Attention Span Statistics, n.d). I still can’t wrap around the fact that our attention span is lower than that of a goldfish!
Psychologists’ guide to approximating your attention span
Rather than referring to attention span, it can be coined into the following term: Attention span for learning. The quantity of learning is contingent on the concentration level – which is determined by the attention span. Some psychologists use the below formula to tabulate the average attention span of a child (Culverhouse, 2009):
Average Attention span for learning = (Child’s age + 2) minutes
Others argue that the average attention span is the child’s age multiplied by 2-3 minutes (Culverhouse, 2009).
Both of the latter formulas are equivocal as they are derived under “ideal” conditions and disregard external stimuli. Furthermore, modern-day researchers champion the idea that our attention span saturates as we age and have set the upper limit to 20-22 minutes of learning time for older teens and adults (Attention Span Revisited, 2011). Educators, parents and children have invariably accepted the following guide to attention span for children over the past 40 years (Attention Span Revisited, 2011):
- Children between the ages of two and three have an attention span ranging from three to four minutes.
- When children begin Kindergarten (approximately age five), attention spans rise to a maximum of five to 10 consecutive minutes.
- Between ages six and eight, the maximum time for focused attention during instructional time can stretch to 15-20 minutes when children are engaged in a single learning task.
- From age nine to 12, the best estimates of an adolescent’s “focused attention” do not exceed 22 to 35 minutes when they are engaged in learning.
However, recently our attention span has been digressing very far from ideal. Furthermore, attention span has been declining with each generation. Newton’s cradle has been set in motion, with posterity having a lower attention span than us.
What led to decreasing attention span?
Technological devices and social media
Technological gadgets have subjugated our society. Ms. Davis believes that we are so reliant on them that we have lost our ability to think critically and our attention span (Davis, 2014). For instance, when was the last time you did mental math correctly without falling back on your calculator? We use a calculator to compute and computers to spell. I am also culpable for relying on electronic gadgets to do the simplest things. I mean it is very convenient! However, Ms. Davis professed, ‘For all the convenience such inventions have brought to our daily lives, the reliance on the same has lulled us into not thinking for ourselves” (Davis, 2014).
I agree with her that technological evolution has desecrated certain abilities we once possessed – Mental math capacity, spelling, navigation using maps and compasses, and so on. However, it has also paved the way for us to operate far more complex devices, which paradoxically requires us to think critically. I feel critical thinking has evolved over time. Today critical thinking is all about concepts, and it is also domain-specific. As my university professor told us: “for us engineers, we focus on the underlying concepts. Worrying about the derivation of an already proven formula is the job of a mathematician (you can do so in your own leisure time – not on exams).
Furthermore, focusing on doing a sum mentally when you have access to a calculator is foolish as you are wasting time. You should worry about what you will do with the raw figures obtained, what it signifies, and how it impacts your design”. In other words, we use the existing devices to help create more intelligent electronics. That is called evolution and progress. In my opinion, technological advancement is a double-edged sword: though it abolished certain ways of doing things, we learned to operate and work with new and advanced electronics. In either of the circumstances – in the past or now- we are thinking critically, and we are using our minds. Nevertheless, I concur with Ms. Davis’s view that our attention span (not critical thinking) has declined over the years due to the availability of multitudinous gadgets and devices.
For example, watching television or playing video games for extended periods of time can obstruct a child’s ability to focus when they become older (What Factors Affect the Attention Span of Children? n.d). The latter can be ascribed to the rapidly changing images on television or in video games- which can “over-stimulate young minds” and result in an “inability to focus” during a period when the brain is maturing (What Factors Affect the Attention Span of Children?, n.d).
Furthermore, we constantly check our social media notifications to pay attention to our surroundings.
18% of the loss of attention span is because of stress (Gaille, 2013). Stress is ubiquitous as we are ensconced in a fast-moving, intricately linked society. Research by Lloyds TBS insurance unveiled that older people –over 50’s- are able to concentrate for a more extended period than their younger counterparts (Moore, 2008). The study proposed that the “busy lifestyles” and “intrusive modern technology” pervasive in our generation have contributed to our lower attention spans than the previous generations.
17% of the demise of attention span can be attributed to decision overload (Gaille, 2013). The colossal amount of information on the web has shrunk the attention span of adults to less than 60 seconds as they navigate from 1 website to the other (What Is Considered a Normal Attention Span?, n.d). A Pew Internet study in the US suggested that online platforms reduce not only our attention span but also our depth analysis (Plumridge, 2013). The latter is because our style of reading has changed over the years. We skim through an article on the web and read superficially to get the main ideas and to judge whether we want to finish the entire article. In my opinion, we have access to a lot of information and little time to process it. Thus, our brain has adapted to the circumstances by “shallow-reading” an article.
Continuous-Partial attention (CPA)
The evolution of technology and the internet led to a term known as continuous-partial attention (CPA). CPA is when concentrated attention is divided to accomplish two or more tasks concurrently (Attention Span Revisited, 2011). CPA is different from multitasking.
We are driven by the urge to be more productive and efficient in multitasking. We do tasks that are mechanical, and that requires little thought process (Stone, n.d). Nevertheless, we give the same importance to all the tasks involved in multitasking (For example: talking on the phone and eating lunch). However, CPA is driven by the need to connect and be connected (Stone, n.d). We are always alert for opportunities and pay continuous partial attention to anything and everything. The feigned sense of crisis is more common in CPA than in multitasking.
One of the outcomes of a CPA is a loss in performance which can even cause “performance paralysis.” “Performance paralysis” is when either of the tasks can be done instinctively – without “actively and consciously thinking about each step in the process of execution” – before the other task can be effectively carried out (Attention Span Revisited, 2011).
What can be done to cope with declining attention spans?
Based on empirical evidence, Ms. Hargrave suggests that the attention span of Ghana students was three times that of an average American college student despite having access to similar luxuries – like smartphones and TV (Hargrave, 2014). So, what can be done to cope with our decreasing attention span?
Accept the change
We cannot abolish technology and the proliferating social media from our society. Instead, we learn to navigate around and adapt to the change. For example, we know that our children can’t focus throughout a 90-minute lecture because of decreased attention span. Thus, some educators incorporate their lesson plan with quizzes and activities to keep the children focused and engaged, while others allow children to lead the discussion (Hargrave, 2014). Some tutors also give breaks between lectures and intersperse the lecture information into chunks.
Use of cognitive toolkit
Although we have electronics to do most of the thinking for us, we still have to “train” and “exercise” our brains. Especially among children whose minds are still developing. Control hours of television and video games and encourage independent play. Games/activities that involve thinking and creativity are recommended: Puzzles, Word Games, Strategy or Math Games, Reading or Writing, Arts and Crafts, Pretend Play or Musical Instruments (Zant, 2010).
Stress has been identified to meddle with our attention spans. Thus, we need an outlet to reduce chronic stress. Some choose meditation. Others choose sports. Physical activity enhances blood flow to your brain, thus improving your intelligence (Zant, 2010). Is this why colleges encourage students to get involved in activities other than academic-oriented ones? Have the electives/extracurricular activities in schools been beneficial for you?
Diet has been identified as one of the reasons for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) among children. Include a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugary and heavily processed foods (Zant, 2010).
Originally published on the Zealousness blog in 2016. Revised and updated in 2022.
Read more personal development related articles on Zealousness blog Personal Development – iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org)
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