Attention Span and Technology


 By Elizabeth Goodhue

When students use Snapchat or Instagram during class, what are they trying to tell us?

In 2015,  The Telegraph posted an article suggesting that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones. If this is true, then most of their readers did not read the conclusion: “Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually can function has changed.”

What is the average attention span?

Some research suggests that using a child’s age plus one year is a starting point for the number of minutes a child can attend to a single assigned task — 5 +1 minutes for a 5-year-old, 8 minutes for a 7-year-old, etc. This means that a teenager may be able to pay attention in class for 14 to 19 minutes. However, activity, interest, motivation, fatigue, among other things, factor into attention span.

What’s the real problem?

Perhaps instead of worrying about how technology distracts students, we should consider the real problem, which is how we teach our children. If a 15-year old’s attention span is 16 minutes, then why are we teaching in blocks of 50 to 90 minutes or more? If our attention spans are as short as the number of years we have lived, why shouldn’t our students use the Internet as a tool to get past the trivial stuff?

Learning efficiently

Using technology to promote learning, teaches self-motivation, pacing, and an efficient way to learn the essentials of math, science, reading and writing. Encouraging and training students to use technology to gain knowledge efficiently provides us with the space to teach them more about the world.
Open up the span of learning
By the time a student reaches university he or she should use calculators, e-learning, and other Internet sources. Then he or she will have more time to address the more important complex issues that no one else can solve, or write articles that no one else has written, or make new scientific discoveries.
Technology is no villain
The extra time students gain by using shortcuts that the Internet provides, gives them more time to explore things that it cannot teach us like compassion, empathy, grit, love, pain, dedication, motivation, how to navigate the world, and how to be happy. Technology is not the villain when it comes to attention span. If we use technology in our classrooms to teach, we open space for critical thinking and problem solving. Then our students can move outside of the classroom to be interns, volunteer for people in need, perform scientific experiments, create masterpieces, or write symphonies.