Are our attention spans getting shorter?


In an era where presentations must captivate within 10 minutes, speeches lose listeners after 30 seconds, and just eight seconds de- termine if our attention is hooked, are short-form media content like TikTok’s, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts further eroding our already fragile attention spans?

The claim that short-form media directly causes shortened atten- tion spans, and that Generation Z possesses shorter attention spans than previous generations, lack substantial evidence and should be critically examined.

In exploring the impacts of short-form videos on our attention spans and moods, the study, published at the University of Twente, titled “Caught in The Loop: The Effects of The Addictive Nature of Short-Form Videos On Users’ Perceived Attention Span and Mood” by Torben J. Kohler, a Communication Science (BSc) major, offers intriguing insights.

The experiment used the Stroop test and fifteen interviews, consisting of young people who consume short-form videos at least once a week, ranging from 19 to 24 years old, living either in the Netherlands or Germany.

The Stroop test assesses the ability to inhibit cognitive interference by presenting words that name col- ors printed in incongruent colored ink (e.g., the word ‘red’ printed in blue ink). Surprisingly, results did not show significant differences between users with varying levels of short-form video consumption, suggesting less immediate cognitive impact than feared.

However, qualitative interviews revealed that participants found short-form videos addictive and challenging to control. While immediate attention span effects were not always noticeable, participants felt less focused in daily life, indicating a potential negative impact over time.

To mitigate these negative effects, Kalpathy Ramaiyer Subramanian, a Mechanical Engineer with an MBA and a Ph.D. in Management, in his academic article “Myth and Mystery of Shrinking Attention Span,” published by Thinketh Labs in Chennai, India, has collected scientific studies that may restore focus back in people’s lives. These tips include staying hy- drated, doing regular exercise and managing interruptions.

A 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that even mild dehydration can cause you to lose focus. Men should drink 13 cups of total beverages a day while women should drink nine cups, according to the Mayo Clinic. Further, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE, a scientific journal community, found that more physically fit individuals responded faster to tasks.

The same study found that office workers only get 11 minutes between interruptions, when it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. Dedicating specific time slots to focus solely on work and minimizing distractions can help improve focus.

These platforms continue a historical media trend, reflecting enduring patterns in how content has been consumed since the advent of mass media.

Take Vine, for example. This platform, which ran from 2013 to 2017, opened the gates for creators to showcase their talents in 7-second videos. It allowed creators such as Logan Paul to be spontaneous, King Bach to be comically controversial, and so many others to jumpstart their careers. This was long before TikTok captivated audiences in even less time. Yet Vine does not reflect a pattern of decreasing attention spans over time. Additionally, the standard length for television advertisements was a minute until it transitioned in the 1970s to 30 seconds. Today, we see ads within Amazon Prime shows and the accursed two unskippable ads on YouTube.

Here’s how these platforms get to you. You probably made a TikTok account, not expecting yourself to touch the app very often. Then, you are introduced to the “For You” page which opens you up to new content from creators you do not follow. You selectively view posts with enticing thumbnails, containing key words, hashtags, notable figures, places, or things that interest you. The algorithm processes the culmination of posts you view and tailors the content to fit a pattern based on the data it collects.

Personally, I never joined TikTok to avoid this rabbit hole of endless scrolling. Yet, I find myself wasting an hour of my day on Instagram Reels simply because it is connected to the app I use to message friends. What was originally my outlet for more intricate content on YouTube has now become more or less the same as the other platforms. Now before you old heads jump to any conclusions, this does not mean short-form content is all that my generation can tolerate.

Contrary to popular belief, I believe students don’t have short attention spans; they can focus for hours on a single project if it feels relevant and meaningful to them, and they have the time and space to accomplish it.

My own experiences reflect a nuanced reality. While I often decide within the first few seconds of a song whether to add it to my playlist, I also spend endless hours immersed in a Minecraft world with my friends. This shows that engagement depends on the context and personal interest.

Similarly, while I might struggle to sit through a 40-minute Suits episode unless there’s a constant influx of new plots, I find myself absorbed in assignments when I use AI tools to streamline the initial steps, giving me more time to delve into the parts that I find interesting.

Even watching lectures at double the speed, or skipping dialogue in video games for the sake of convenience, points to a selective attention span rather than a diminished one. When students perceive an activity as meaningful, they can sustain their focus just as effectively as ever.

While platforms like TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts might contribute to a perceived decline in attention spans, the evidence is not definitive. Growing up amidst the rapid evolution of social media, I’ve witnessed first-hand the addictive nature of these platforms and their impact on our daily lives. However, by understanding how these algorithms work and adopting healthy habits, we can mitigate their negative effects.

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