There’s no question that technology has made it easier to be distracted – jumping from tab to tab in your web browser or checking email as you wait in line at Starbucks. Second-screen TV viewing (where viewers simultaneously surf the net while watching a program) has become so common that networks have developed apps to encourage it.
I have to look no further than myself to know that technology can have a negative impact on your attention span. In the amount of time I’ve lost to Facebook and NYTimes.com, I’m sure I could have written the next great American novel (or at least the next complete one).
And when it comes to my ten-month-old son, I’m determined that he not have much screen exposure until the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended 2 years of age – or longer – because of the connection between technology and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition I’ve watched my brother struggle with since he was diagnosed as a teen.
But is it that our attention spans are actually shrinking – or has what captures our attention just changed?
In two recent studies by the Pew Internet Project and Common Sense Media, almost 90 percent of teachers surveyed said that technology is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
Students are getting used to having the answers at their fingertips. In a matter of seconds, they can find the answer to any question on the Internet. (Though whether or not it’s accurate is another story!) And teachers reported having to do a “song and dance” to get them to pay attention to lessons.
But here’s where it gets interesting: those who changed their teaching style to be flexible and dynamic and incorporated educational video games, digital presentations, and other technology found that “once [the students] were engaged, they were just as able to solve problems and be creative as they had been in the past.”
It seems that their ability to pay attention still exists. We just have to find new ways to tap into it. But hasn’t that always been the challenge with kids? I may not have had a smartphone or a tablet computer growing up, but I still (repeatedly) got in trouble for reading a book during math class instead of paying attention to the lesson. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a long attention span—I just found algebra boring.
What’s also interesting is that the ability to stay focused on a screen (but not elsewhere) is actually a common characteristic of ADD. In a world that is increasingly becoming digitized, this may not always be such a bad thing. How many jobs today require people to spend 8 hours in front of a computer screen, often with little-to-no human interaction?
So before we demonize technology’s role in our children’s lives, we have to ask ourselves: what will better prepare them for their future careers? After all, is it more important to have facts or figures memorized or to be able to use Excel to analyze those facts and figures effectively? Isn’t learning how to type just as important as learning how to write?
Just as I look back at the lifestyles of the 1900s and wonder how they weren’t bored out of their minds, I imagine our children will wonder how we survived a childhood without gigabit internet and augmented reality glasses.
For myself and for my family, I strive for balance.
I still want my son to have extremely limited screen exposure in his early years, but he’s enjoyed a Peekaboo game on my Kindle and caught a few football games on TV already. And I look forward to watching him explore his creativity on Photoshop and sharing it on Facebook, just as much as I look forward to hanging his finger paintings on my fridge.
But it would be a shame for him not to get in trouble for reading a book (a real one!) during his math class or to appreciate the peace of an afternoon spent fishing at a pond with no WiFi around for miles.
I hope his attention – and the attention of the rest of his generation – will be captured by many things, digital or otherwise.