Are Students’ Attention Spans Shrinking?

Teachers — some of you might worry that your students are more frequently off-task or otherwise distracted today than they were ten years ago. Your concerns are no longer mere suspicion; it’s empirically evident: attention spans are shrinking.

Dr. Gloria Mark, a psychologist and the Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at the University of California Irvine has been studying how people interact with technology for decades. By measuring the frequency with which computer users switch tasks, she and her team of researchers have traced the shrinkage of our attention spans over the last 20 years.

In 2004, Mark and her team began timing how long computer users would stick to one task before switching to another (i.e. flipping from a Word document to an email). Back then, the average attention span lasted two and a half minutes. By 2012, that average shrunk to 75 seconds.

Within the last five or six years, user attention spans averaged 47 seconds.

According to Mark, other teams of researchers have reached very similar conclusions. And much to our dismay, the implication that we’ve developed a robust knack for multitasking isn’t the good news we’d hoped it’d be.

“We know from decades of research in the laboratory that when people multitask, they experience stress, [and] blood pressure rises,” Mark explains in an interview with the American Psychological Association earlier this year.

Increased stress isn’t the only drawback of shrinking attention spans. In her studies, Mark found that increased attention switching (or decreased attention spans) means an increase in errors and a slower performance, thanks to a phenomenon Mark calls the “switch cost.”

“[E]very time you switch your attention,” she says, “you have to reorient to that new activity, that new thing you’re paying attention to, and it takes a little bit of time.”

Additional peer-reviewed studies have found links between digital device dependency and symptoms of depression, suicidal tendencies, and screen-time-induced poor sleep quality. And as most teachers may recall from your university’s childhood development courses, quality sleep is crucial for brain development and memory retention.

So if attention spans are shrinking across the board while stress and depression are rising and performance is suffering, how are students faring in this digital age?

Common Sense Media’s post-pandemic report, which focused on media use for non-school-related activities, found that teens average eight and a half hours of screen time a day. From laptops and tablets to smartphones and watches, students bounce between apps and tasks, while being bombarded by notifications and advertisements.

Early exposure to screens is especially concerning, according to Mark, because it acculturates children to think that endless media consumption is normal behavior, and forestalls the development of self-control skills.

This can affect students of all ages as the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of executive functions like self-control primarily develops during adolescence but doesn’t fully mature until age 25. It’s possible, then, that students who find staying on task particularly challenging may have yet to develop those executive functioning abilities.

“Children need self-control for learning,” says Mark. “I find it problematic that we’re putting children into a digital world before some very critical mental functions are fully developed. I don’t think kids are really ready for that.”

As staying focused is proving to be exceptionally challenging for the rising generations, what can be done to help them develop enough self-control to stay on task in the classroom?

Mark notes that, although technology has become an integral part of education, incorporating off-screen lessons or activities into your instruction can help students in any grade learn to focus.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that reaching for a device when taking a break was actually more cognitively taxing than a non-screen activity.

“The results show that using [a] cell phone for a break did not allow [the] brain to recharge as effectively as the other types of breaks,” the study concludes.

Edutopia notes some excellent tips for taking meaningful breaks in the classroom, including:

  1. Giving frequent breaks to “help students of all ages regain focus.”
  2. Integrating physical activity to “boost moods, reboot motivation, and improve cognitive functioning.”
  3. Making breaks social to “improve crucial social skills like conflict resolution, collaboration, and group problem-solving.”
  4. Making breaks creative to stimulate “curiosity and creative thinking.”

Technology has transformed public education — especially in today’s post-pandemic world. In addition to taking off-screen breaks, students need a clear and accurate perspective on their media-consuming habits before they can responsibly take charge of them and increase their attention spans as a result.

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