Understanding the erosion of attention spans

Because people are so connected to their phones, they may not be able to give their full attention to the
things that matter most to them. (Photo sourced from Pexels)
Because people are so connected to their phones, they may not be able to give their full attention to the things that matter most to them. (Photo sourced from Pexels)

Written by: Gabrielle Grundy

Have you ever found yourself working on an assignment, and next thing you know, you’ve been scrolling on Instagram or TikTok for an hour? Maybe you were having a conversation with friends, felt the buzz of a notification on your phone, and just couldn’t resist checking it despite being in the middle of something. Becoming easily distracted like this is quite common nowadays. In fact, research shows that our attention spans have significantly decreased over the past few decades. 

Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, said in an interview with the American Psychological Association, “Back in 2004, we found the average attention span on any screen to be two and a half minutes on average. Throughout the years it became shorter. So, around 2012, we found it to be 75 seconds. … And then, in the last five, six years, we found it to average about 47 seconds.” 

As you can see, these are some pretty stark numbers. An article on Harvard Business Review’s psychology section described an experiment that was conducted to see if having one’s smartphone near them influences their cognitive abilities. To no surprise, individuals who did not have their phones in the same room as them performed the best in the experiment. 

“Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention,” the article states.

When I was thinking about things that are affected by our decreased attention spans, one of the first things that came to mind was reading books. A recent poll conducted by Gallup, a global analytics and advisory firm, found that American adults are reading fewer books each year. Americans read an average of 12.6 books in 2022, which is the smallest number this poll has measured in any prior survey dating back to 1990. 

While the decline in books read each year doesn’t account for the surge in online books and audio books in recent years, it points to a trend toward more shallow engagement at large. Aaron Quinn, a Chattanooga-based author, said, “We have so many options now that we’ve become paralyzed by those options. I think that’s why a lot of times we go to social media because we have so much content to scan … and that is a distraction in itself.”  

Writer and author Scott Young said in an article, “Reading books is an activity that struggles to compete with the algorithmic engineering underlying most online content.” 

The instant gratification that we get from social media and other forms of online content makes a focus-based activity like reading more difficult than ever.

Matthew Taylor, a sophomore mass communication-media production major at Southern Adventist University, has been diagnosed with ADHD and described his experience with ADHD combined with access to the internet and social media.

“When I started having access to technology and the internet and had instant access to all kinds of information and knowledge in small snippets, it became massively easier to not pay attention,” Taylor said. “I’m able to access information that runs at the same speed as my brain, and doing such has made it difficult to pay attention for longer.”

This article is not intended to be disheartening; rather, I hope it helps us be mindful of staying connected and informed while being aware of the impact that modern technologies can have on our attention spans. 

As a college student, it can be especially difficult to stay focused with so much going on, but I encourage everyone to try out small steps, such as putting your phone away during lectures or while doing assignments. And if you made it through reading this entire article, undistracted, that in itself is a sign that not all hope is lost for us. 

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