On the Question of Attention Spans and Boredom

Bored teen student doing homework

By: Christine Hill


A study last year conducted by Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (about the time when digital devices became ubiquitous), the average human attention span has shrunk from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.


While most people respond to this revelation with a cry bemoaning the loss of focus and the way that modern technology is rotting our brains… is it really a bad thing? What does a shorter attention span really mean, practically? What kind of problems does it cause, and what unseen side effects does it have?


Instant Gratification Versus Long-Term Rewards


Young brains are being wired to seek instant gratification over long-term rewards. As we know, there are many things in life that are only achieved through sustained, consistent efforts. Things like stable financial success, acquisition of new languages, and of course, loving and dedicated relationships.


It worries me when I see that kids are sacrificing grades and other things they know are important in order to pursue the various addictions of our hyperconnected world: social media, rapid-fire texting, gaming, and YouTube video pits. It’s troubling when they know that these things could be harmful, but they can’t seem to stop. To me, that’s a danger sign of addiction. However, parents and teachers are unsure where to draw lines and make restrictions because after all, fluency in modern technology is a vital skill that will be needed for their success in the future.

Child resting in a park under a large tree.

Could It Be an Advantage?


Maybe it’s the school system that needs to learn to start adapting. After all, for good or bad, this is the new reality. It creates new challenges, but it also creates amazing new opportunities. It’s important to remember that the human brain is built with an elastic ability to adapt to new environments. Things that we collectively view as a problem, like an increase in ADHD, and a general lowering of attention span, could actually be a strength. Shorter attention span could simply be a sign that we’re adapting to the increased stimuli. Along with shorter attention includes faster ability to process and sort stimuli.


Amber Case, CEO of Geoloqui, stated, “Today and in the future it will not be as important to internalize information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesize them, and make rapid decisions.” And William Schrader, founder of PSINet, said, “The youth of 2020 will enjoy cognitive ability far beyond our estimates today based not only on their ability to embrace ADHD as a tool but also by their ability to share immediately any information with colleagues/friends and/or family, selectively and rapidly.”


While hyperconnectivity may present new problems of its own, it breaks down problems that we’ve struggled with in the past. Communication is the key to dispelling misunderstandings. And isn’t dispelling misunderstandings and arbitrary borders and separations the key to resolving conflict? Schrader further states, “Technology by 2020 will enable the youth to ignore political limitations, including country borders, and especially ignore time and distance as an inhibitor to communications.”


But What’s It Doing to Culture and Art?


The biggest danger that I can see this “shortened attention span” generating (and thus far, the only one we have any real evidence of) is the way that it has changed our media, kowtowing to the idea that we can’t focus on anything for more than 8 seconds. On the contrary, I believe that children today are able to focus just as much as any other generation. I’ve seen the kids I’ve babysit become glued to a game to the point of complete deafness to outside stimuli. The main difference is that with so much competition, we must now become much more discerning about what we invest our focus on, and if it does not grant immediate results, we quickly move on to one of our many other options.


In response to the change in attention span, I’ve seen news articles and, recipes, and literature reduced to soundbites in a frantic attempt to curry favor from the new generation. On one hand, editing and limiting ourselves can make content stronger. On the other, we could lose the ability to communicate on a deeper level. I’ve seen video lengths reduced from a few minutes’ investment to 30-seconds-or-less Vines. Is one more valuable than the other? No. But one is more able to achieve the effervescent and fleeting success of “trending” status–a glory that goes as quickly as it comes.


I think that in adapting to the younger generation’s time-span preferences, we’re confusing “teenagers” with “a new way of being.” I honestly believe that, while there will be some changes in culture, communication, and relationship structure in the future, the rising generation of teens will learn what we all did as we gain more years: as Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain to cheap, we esteem too lightly.”


The Defense of Boredom


There’s one complaint generated in response to our hyperconnected world which I can get behind, and that’s the defense of boredom. While largely a philosophical question, it strikes a chord in me. I believe that the world in general is losing boredom, and that it will take a while for us to recognize how much we’ve lost with it. Bertram Russell pointed out that humans, as a species, are terrified of boredom, little regarding the advantages that come with it. The more our ability to curb boredom, the more we frantically fight against it. “We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.” Let me point out that Russell was talking about this in 1930. He couldn’t have imagined our modern era, where 77% of people said that the first thing they do when there’s nothing to occupy their attention is to reach for their smartphone.


German philosopher Walter Benjamin points out that boredom creates the mental state in which we are most able to absorb and process stories. “If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”
In frantically fleeing from boredom, I think that we are robbing ourselves of certain things: peace with oneself, honest contemplation, the source of true creativity, and even true happiness. However, knowing the remarkable ability of the human brain to adapt to new situations, I have faith that we’ll find a way there, despite the noise of modern life.

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