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Does Technology Use Decrease My Child’s Attention Span?


He gives the excuse that he “forgot” to unload the dishwasher. She whines that she can’t focus on her homework. He complains that practicing the piano is boring. She grumps that reading a book takes too much time and effort. It seems that no matter the task, your kids simply can’t, or won’t, complete it.

For the past 50 years, society’s scapegoat for children’s shortcomings has been technology: first it was TV, then video games, and now smartphones. But does technology actually have an impact on an individual’s attention span?


A Misleading Study

In 2015, Microsoft produced a widely reported “study” that human attention spans had decreased to 8 seconds—less than a goldfish’s supposed ability to focus for 9 seconds (McSpadden, 2015). Reputable news organizations regurgitated the “data” without investigating it further, which stoked society’s blame war against technology. Now, apparently, parents had a culprit for the rising generation’s ills.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s report was amateur and misleading, something akin to surveying one’s friends at a neighborhood barbeque and then publishing the results as science. Researchers have since tested Microsoft’s claim—repeatedly—and have, without exception, found it to be categorically false (Subramanian, 2018).

Nevertheless, society’s knee-jerk reaction to Microsoft’s study created a backlash against technology that has increasingly attributed blame for everything—from an apparent increase in autism and ADHD diagnoses to school violence. So, if Microsoft’s report was fake, what’s really happening?

A Question of Semantics

According to researcher K.R. Subramanian (2018), attention span refers to “the presence of mind necessary to sincerely engage” in relationships, academics, and work tasks. It denotes the self-control to maintain interest and focus in a given activity, regardless of whether that activity is pleasurable.

So does technology impair one’s attention span? The answer may be a question of semantics. Research does not indicate any biological impact from technology; more at issue is our behavioral response to it. The appeal of technology (ex: games, social media) increasingly tempts us towards distractibility; after all, it’s more fun to play Candy Crush than to unload the dishwasher. Technology’s ubiquitous interruptions (ex: television, smartphones) mean that responsibility and gratification are constantly at war within each of us; why practice piano when Guitar Hero is available? The constant stream of dopamine that we enjoy from playing Fishdom functions like an addictive IV drip when compared with more genuine achievements that require time, effort, and problem solving (Bhat, 2017). In short, it is our lack of self-control and initiative that makes technology a threat—not technology itself. To modify a famous Bible verse, if there is anything fun, easy, entertaining, gratifying, or superficial, we seek after these things.


What the Research Actually Says

Rather than arguing that people today have short attention spans, it is more accurate to recognize that we now have more opportunities for distraction—and perhaps are more prone to give in to those distractions. This is especially true for generations, such as our children’s, that did not grow up before the digital revolution became a household reality. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to ignore technology’s siren song and unlikely to judiciously balance their responsibilities with entertainment.

In their article “Myth and Mystery of Shrinking Attention Span,” Dr. Subramanian (2018), argues that “the shrinking attention span … is situational” and has more to do with interest than with sustainable focus. Subramanian points out that children still become engrossed in a single activity—like world building with Legos—for hours, during which time they are immune to distraction. Focus, motivation, and perseverance are natural for all of us when an activity seems “relevant and meaningful.” On the other hand, any task can make us impatient and ornery when we see it as a chore or interruption.


Strategies to Get Their Attention

If we sense that our kids have short attention spans, the issue may simply be that they have not developed the skills and habits to use technology responsibly. For years, the Centers for Disease Control (2018) have insisted that kids should not have more than two hours of screen time per day; yet most young people exceed this by triple or quadruple. Sharon Horwood, of Deakin University, warns that “screen time is replacing other [critical] activities such as parent-child time and social play,” and those losses undermine attention, focus, and other life skills (Guardian, 2021). Even an elementary student can understand this logic: if someone is spending 6-8 hours with technology, they’re not using that time for social, creative, necessary, or worthwhile activities. So what are some strategies we can implement to help our children balance their technology use and maintain healthy attention spans?

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Idea #1: Make a Plan

Help your kid divide their day into blocks of time where they focus on just one thing at a time. Train them to resist distractibility throughout that time by reminding them that there is already time set aside for play, snacks, technology, friends, exercise, and other activities. When they have a routine to follow and anticipate, they will be more mentally and physically attentive to the task at hand.

Idea #2: Create a Bubble

Even adults become distracted when there are things happening all around us. The struggle is even more difficult for our children, who lack a lifetime of training and maturity! Help your kid be successful by creating a focus bubble—a physical “do not disturb” zone—that is free of people, technology, and other stimuli. Studies indicate that, even among adults, distraction and multitasking reduce productivity by 40%; we actually achieve more when we are less busy and more focused (Martins, 2021; Subramanian, 2018).

Idea #3: Prioritize Fun

Be intentional about interspersing regular doses of fun into your child’s schedule, and help orchestrate different forms of amusement (Martins, 2021). Remember that play is the primary learning mode for children; this is where they try new things, pursue their creative interests, and develop relationship skills. If they keep defaulting to technology as their primary source of fun, make an extra effort to help them identify and pursue other engaging activities.


Myth Busting the Goldfish

In opposition to Microsoft’s goldfish study, scientists agree that the human attention span has not changed, and that technology is not inherently destructive (Subramanian, 2018). “Technology has given us a sense of connectivity, convenience, and freedom that would be hard to imagine just a decade ago,” but those benefits come with responsibilities (The Guardian, 2021). When we stop subscribing to the myth of the goldfish, we create the mental space to exchange excuses and blame for initiative and innovation. With an extra dose of intentionality, we can help our children develop important, attention-affirming life skills that will enable them to cultivate a healthy relationship with technology, entertainment, and life’s other responsibilities.


References

Bhat, J. (2017, August 14). Attention Spans in the Age of Technology. NAMI. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/August-2017/Attention-Spans-in-the-Age-of-Technology

Is Technology Short-Changing Our Attention Spans? (2021, April 22). The Guardian. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/sbs-on-demand--are-you-addicted-to-technology/2021/apr/23/is-technology-short-changing-our-attention-spans

McSpadden, K. (2015, May 14). Science: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. Time. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

Screen Time vs. Lean Time Infographic. (2018, Jan 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/multimedia/infographics/getmoving.html

Subramanian, K. R. (2018). Myth and Mystery of Shrinking Attention Span. International Journal of Trend in Research and Development, 5(3), 1–6. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from http://www.ijtrd.com/papers/IJTRD16531.pdf.


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