Attention spans aren’t shrinking; we just refuse to be bored

During my middle school years I was an avid reader. Books were my passion and absorbed all of my focus when I would come home from a day of being in the classroom. In the sixth grade I made a point to read all seven of the Harry Potter books in a span of seven days. One each night, cover to cover. The final tally was 3,407 pages read in one week’s time.

I succeeded at age 12, but at 22 I have no prayer of repeating the feat. I whipped out my copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone last week for the purpose of this piece to see how far I could read before taking a break.

The longest book in the Harry Potter series Photo courtesy of KltAy, Flickr

Thirty-six pages. That’s it. I didn’t last past the second chapter of a book I read in one sitting 10 years earlier. More mind-boggling is the fact that the series’ first novel is the shortest of any; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tallies 766 pages and 12-year-old me cranked it out in one sitting.

From 766 pages without a break to a measly 36— what’s the difference?

Modern society seemingly has shorter attention spans. Who does the blame fall on for this? Blame doesn’t reside with one particular individual or group; there is plenty of blame here to go around.

Today’s society — younger generations in particular — have become more dependent on technology than ever before. As both a part of society and a millennial, I am a part of the problem. We allegedly check our phones 80 times per day: roughly once every 12 minutes.

It hasn’t always been this way.

I would argue that the difference is the technological revolution that has occurred since the turn of the century. Claiming solely that attention spans are becoming notably shorter is a farce. The real change has been in which mediums our brains can pay attention to.

Thirty-six  pages took me roughly 25 minutes to read through prior to needing a break. My first instincts were to power up my Playstation and to play a game of Fortnite, which quickly turned into an hour-and-a-half long binge. The attention span of our generation may not be shrinking drastically: rather, the possibility exists that the technology made available to us has changed what commands our attention.

The change is obvious: time spent watching television, consuming digital media and playing video games has risen over the last decade-plus while time spent reading has declined. Readily accessible technology is the only thing to blame.

Ninety-five percent of Americans now own cell phones. More than half own gaming consoles, and nearly all have a PC capable of supporting game play. Electronic media and gaming is rapidly taking over interests over traditional reading of books and other offline activities. Cell phone apps are also playing into the idea that attention spans are shrinking. It’s possible to spend hours on a cell phone without using the same app twice or seeing the same post on social media twice, meaning that our minds can just fly through information and jump from app to app to avoid getting bored with monotonous or tedious tasks.

It isn’t difficult to see where the national and worldwide interests reside on the matter: the most famous YouTube gamer has more subscribers than the President of the United States has Twitter followers, and it really isn’t close. Claiming this is coincidental would be a farce.

It is apparent that readers are getting less attentive when it comes to online reading and numerous studies have proven this to be the case. The root of the problem, however, is not simply because the average person now has a shorter overall attention span than before. Our interests are simply slipping away from traditional mediums and academia and converting to be focused on new advances in technology.

Advances in technology are abundant and they are obvious; virtual reality has gone from a pipe dream straight out of The Twilight Zone to an actual reality in 2018. The potential for innovative technologies to entertain the average citizen in the present and immediate future is limitless.

Some sources claim that the average American’s attention span has shrunk to under ten seconds, but my theory on why studies are yielding results like these is simple. The average American consumer of media in 2018 knows what they want, and knows how to get what they want.

The reason people don’t stay on websites for longer than 10 seconds isn’t necessarily because of a shrunken attention span. Rather, humans are becoming more and more apt when it comes to locating the information they need and whether or not a certain web page will offer that to them.

We can jump seamlessly from page to page within seconds, because conducting research and gathering information is easier than ever. At this point I’ve linked at least nine different sources to this blog post, and the research time to acquire those nine links as supporting evidence hasn’t approached 30 minutes.

Screen grab from Epic Games’ new smash game, Fortnite Photo courtesy of Skirnir Deadlight, Flickr

Attention spans aren’t shrinking in the way that online media sources would have you believe, we are simply becoming more efficient in research and are dedicating our attention to different things. A three hour Fortnite binge or a two and a half hour movie are effortless for the average person to endure.

Dense texts and boring news articles struggle to keep the audience’s attention because of a general lack of excitement: that’s the difference. Society’s attention spans haven’t shrunk, they simply have lost patient for material that isn’t interesting when so much creative material is available at our fingertips.


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