Channing 25 Staff Illustrator
Channing ’25 Staff Illustrator

Are you even reading this feature?

Pay Attention!

Attention spans have varied throughout history, but in recent years with the abundance of technology and its integration into our everyday lives, the average attention span has been altered in ways unlike ever before. Post-COVID, the attention spans of kids, adolescents and adults have been significantly shortened. Even prior to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, most Americans have had access to technology and the internet with minimal effort for two decades, whether from a public library computer or by using a personal device. Now, almost all adolescents or younger have had the internet at their fingertips, with access to anything from a 15-second TikTok video to published research data.

Attention span is defined as the time for which a human is able to mentally concentrate. According to a study by the American Psychological Association completed in 2004, it was found that the average time a person was able to focus on a screen was around two and a half minutes, but in 2023, that time dropped to 47 seconds. As the average American attention span continues to decline, people tend to get bored with their current activity at hand and end up switching from task to task faster than ever. When one is constantly switching activities, there is a period in which the mind believes it is processing multiple activities at once, classified as multitasking, causing one’s heart rate and stress levels to increase. An increase in traffic accidents, decreased academic excellence and prolonged time to complete an activity have all been linked to the multitasking that stems from decrease in average attention span.

“Most of us think we’re good at multitasking,” Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern Art Kramer said in an interview with the Northeastern Global News. “We’re pretty terrible at it, overall.”

According to the National Library of Medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a heightened dependence on technology to aid humans in keeping connections and to retain a sense of normalcy during quarantine. Full-day FaceTimes and increased time spent on social media platforms became normalized in our everyday lives on a screen, as the time spent face-to-face dramatically decreased.

Psychologist and the Chancellor’s Professor of informatics at the University of California Irvine Gloria Mark has found a correlation between average time spent with screens and executive functioning capabilities. Young kids whose executive functioning capabilities are not fully developed can be easily distracted, so the time it takes them to return to the original activity is greater than it would be for other age groups. There have been increased efforts put into researching ways that humans can increase their attention span. So far, scientists have found that getting the recommended hours of sleep, drinking adequate amounts of water and meditation are all proven to train the mind’s focus center.

During a study conducted by the Hochschule Mittweida University of Applied Science, 76% of participants found that checking emails, social media or other internet-related activities somewhat or completely interrupted their current task at hand. Because the internet is easily accessible with minimal physical or mental work, it is an easy place to browse when boredom or challenge arises, causing increased distraction from one’s original focus.

“If we look at work in terms of switching projects, as opposed to the micro-view of switching screens, we find people spend about 10 and half minutes in any work project before being interrupted — internally or by someone else — and then switch to another work project,” Mark said in an interview with CNN. “In fact, our research shows it takes 25 minutes [and] 26 seconds before we go back to the original working sphere or project.”

Scroll or Stop?

As you click through Instagram stories and scroll through your TikTok For You page, you may feel the sudden need to switch tasks. According to the New York Post, this phenomenon is called “popcorn brain,” a term coined by Daniel Levy, and it is largely a result of social media’s effect on our attention spans.

According to psychologist Dr. Dannielle Haig, when users scroll through their social media feeds, open new applications and click on notifications, their brains release dopamine. This positive feedback when switching tasks causes them to constantly pursue the same sense of satisfaction, creating a cycle that requires users to frequently switch their centers of focus.

“Over time, this constant demand for attention and the rapid switching between tasks can lead to a feeling of mental restlessness or the brain ‘bouncing around’ as it struggles to maintain focus on any one task for an extended period,” Haig said in an interview with Glamour UK.

As explained by Glamour UK, one significant effect of “popcorn brain” is the inability to focus on long forms of information, such as lengthy texts or books. One of the most detrimental impacts of this phenomenon is that many people now struggle to consume relevant news articles and reports.

“Most people will just scroll through their newsfeed and stumble upon relevant news content but just read the headlines or a short video clip of the piece,” Nicole Martin wrote in an article in Forbes magazine. “An average visitor will only read an article for 15 seconds or less, and the average video watch time online is 10 seconds.”

Thus, social media, which offers abridged recountings of current events, has become a major outlet for news consumption. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2023, 50% of adults look to platforms like Instagram and TikTok to stay updated on current events. A separate study by the Pew Research Center explained that Americans are attracted to news via social media when they want “the basic facts about an issue or event,” as opposed to in-depth information. Individuals cited “convenience, speed and the element of social interaction” as reasons that they enjoy using online social platforms to stay updated on current events. However, adults who obtain their information about current events from sites like Facebook and Instagram also appear to have less accurate information.

“U.S. adults who rely [mostly] on social media for political and election news not only were less likely to answer fact-based questions about politics correctly, but they were also the least likely group to say they understand certain news stories,” a study by the Pew Research Center concluded.

Therefore, while “popcorn brain” creates an attraction to fast facts and quick news, there are evident negative repercussions of obtaining information about current events from social media. Specifically, misinformation and fake news are threats to one’s knowledge of current events.

“While having so much information at our fingertips is great, it is worth always checking sources and not taking headlines as truth,” Martin wrote. “With social media as our new news managers, it is up to us to be the new fact checkers for media.”

Did You Read It?

Not only have scientists pointed out the effects of technology on attention spans, but Marlborough students have also noticed an overall decrease in their ability to focus, attributing it to their increased access to their devices, specifically social media. In a survey sent to the Marlborough student body, 60.9% of 69 respondents acknowledged that it has become harder to focus during class in recent years. Students cited many causes of their shortened attention spans, drawing particular attention to school-related stress and mental health issues.

“There is always something on my mind that I tend to focus on instead of the present,” Mila ’26 said.

Yet, numerous factors that students identified as affecting their attention span were closely linked to their growing dependence on technology, including impatience, susceptibility to boredom and the desire to stay updated with what their friends are doing.

In the survey, 75% of students cited their phone, social media or a combination of both as the primary cause of their decreased attention spans. 23% of students reported that technology has impacted their attention spans significantly, while only 5.8% of students didn’t believe technology has impacted their attention spans at all.

“I feel as though TikTok and other short-form content, such as Instagram reels, play a large role in decreasing attention spans because that sort of media makes us accustomed to consuming content rapidly and in quick succession,” Wynter ’25 said.

Another factor contributing to declining attention spans is the way students choose to learn information for their classes. Many students opt to increase the playback speed on videos assigned for homework because they have gotten used to the rapid cuts and fast-paced media that content creators frequently use to keep viewers’ attention to gain interactions with their content. These mediums became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and have become more prevalent in teenagers’ lives since.

“I feel like I would have done way better in school if it weren’t for COVID, and it left a big impact on my life,” Sue ’29 said. “I think that my attention to devices has gone up like four times more than before.”

Teenagers accustomed to receiving information very quickly are less likely to have the necessary focus to read content like short newspaper articles, for example. Only 13% of surveyed students responded that they typically read an entire article of The UltraViolet, as opposed to skimming certain paragraphs or just reading the headline, even if it is on a topic they are interested in.

“I am only interested in reading something for a period of time, so I skim some parts so I can finish the context faster,” Ellie ’27 said. 

Few have the patience to read through an entire newspaper article or chapter of a book in a world full of platforms like SparkNotes and Instagram. The need for extended period of focus to absorb the necessary information has declined, and with it, teenagers’ attention spans. With the wide availability of online summaries, text messages and Instagram infographics in addition to the increased stress of everyday life and school, many teenagers’ impatience is impacting the majority of their learning and everyday lives.

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