GIARDINIERI: Decline of attention spans not harmful


Column: Thoughts From the Back of the Class

Technology and big data are relatively new to our culture, but they have been around long enough that researchers have been able to measure the changes in our daily behaviors. 

One of those behaviors is the decreasing of our attention spans. There is so much content out there that scientists have quantified, and they have explained mathematically why our attention spans are decreasing. A paper released by Nature Communications, co-authored in Denmark by Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Bjarke Mørch Mønsted, Philipp Hövel and Sune Lehmann explains this in detail. 

I recommend checking the paper out if you are interested in that sort of thing. But the meat and potatoes of the paper were that shorter attention spans are driven by the increasing information flows that get disseminated in our daily lives. We have so many things to focus on but normally we tend to focus on those things for very short periods of time.

I was in class last week when a professor asked us why attendance was so low for his class. He wondered why only half the class regularly showed up for lecture. I really wanted to raise my hand and say that it was because we all have short attention spans and none of us really like to be powerpointed to death. But I refrained from doing that because I was not sure how the class would react to me saying that they all have short attention spans, myself included. That was not a road I wanted to go down at 9 in the morning.

After a lively discussion about attendance, the professor resumed his role as instructor and the students resumed their roles as receptacles for information. Then, I kid you not, 90% of the class was either surfing the web, playing games or just scrolling through Facebook. 

This sort of thing happens all the time, and I hate to admit it, but I do it as well. So, this begs the question: Why do we go to class if we are just going to browse away the lecture on our preferred method of entertainment? Are we really getting our money’s worth if we just go to class and play Snake or Minesweeper all period?

Though it is not just our attention spans that are decreasing —  global trends are also decreasing. The paper also found that there are topics that capture our attentions sharply but then lose it just as quickly.

In their research, the scientists found that the global Twitter trend in 2013 lasted an average of 17.5 hours versus the global Twitter trend in 2016 which lasted 11.9 hours. That is very interesting and something that I have noticed on a weekly basis.

For example, one week most users on social media will be in an uproar over the latest incident from President Donald J. Trump, and then a few days later be in an uproar over an excessive use of force by the police. Both these specific situations show how quickly we jump from hot topic to hot topic. 

Personally, I do not think that having a short attention span is detrimental to our current civilization. I guess the only drawback I see is that maybe in the future we will not be able to focus on a single issue that may need a large amount of time to figure out. But maybe that is not a bad thing, because then we will be able to focus on multiple issues and come up with solutions to multiple problems that affect the world daily. 

The ability to multitask is a crucial skill that we all must develop. I think those with short attention spans tend to accomplish more in a normal workday than those who do not have short attention spans. Why is that? 

Well, it is because having a short attention span allows you to focus on multiple areas at a time. For example, you as a college student can work on project A for 20 minutes, then switch over to assignment B for 10 minutes, check Facebook really quick and then finish project A. You should not be embarrassed by your short attention span, but you also should not deny having one either. 

Wear it like a badge of honor and take pride in it. Nobody wants to be normal anyway. Life is a bit more interesting if you are weird.

Kevin Giardinieri is a School of Engineering sophomore majoring in industrial and systems engineering. His column, “Thoughts from the back of the class,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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