Sunday, November 21, 2010

Short little span of attention

The seemingly short attention span of today's children and teenagers is much debated. We've talked a lot about homo zapiens and how multitasking youngsters seldom concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. At the same time we are equally worried about their incredibly long attention spans when it comes to playing engaging and complex online games or participating in lengthy chat sessions. It seems that the problem is that they don't direct their attention towards the activities that parents are familiar with.

homework. by apdk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  apdk 

This is the theme of an article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times, The attention span myth.Is there really anything new about the attention span issue? Some people simply find it difficult to sit still and concentrate and did so long before computers and mobiles came on the scene. Many creative and artistic talents were very poor at fitting into the school ideal of the silent diligent pupil. We all have the ability to concentrate on something we find interesting and engaging but most of us are also less tolerant of activities we find dull. When we worry about our children's short attention span we have to think back to our own childhoods and wonder if we were as concentrated as we would like to remember.

"At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick, even after an early twin study showed that a relatively short attention span is virtually synonymous with standard-issue irritability and distemper. But the fact that the attention-span theory makes news of what was once considered ordinary or artistic behavior is not what’s wrong with it. These cultural transitions — disruptive as they are — happen all the time as society’s demands on individuals change. 

Instead, the problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying. Who needs it?"

I've never had a very long span of attention and am guilty of zapping backwards and forwards all the time. I love reading but seldom manage more than one hour at a stretch. I just get bored easily and have to switch. I've always been like that and I don't think computers or other digital devices are to blame. We do have an unprecedented amount of media to deal with today and this can make short attention spans more visible but it's absolutely nothing new.

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