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Having the attention span of a goldfish may no longer be the the joke you think it is

January 25, 2022
Photo illustration by Jared Osborne
Photo illustration by Jared Osborne —
Photo by Jared Osborne | The State News

Goldfish are notorious for their short attention spans, but they are not the only ones who struggle to focus for an extended period of time. 

Records show that the attention span of the human race has decreased from 12 seconds to eight seconds in the past two decades. Generations Z and Alpha especially struggle with staying focused, and the accessibility of technology as well as short forms of media are to blame. 

“We're so used to watching one minute/two minute videos; whether it's Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter,” journalism freshman Jason Kandel said. “We're so used to watching short things on those platforms where we're actually supposed to watch something over, let's say, 15 minutes in length, you have a hard time paying attention, because it's not what you’re used to.”

Many current high school and college aged young adults can relate to the gradual shift from being entertained mostly by television shows and movies to shorter forms of entertainment, such as YouTube videos, in the past decade. In recent years, applications such as Snapchat and TikTok, which feature clips a maximum of one minute long and three minutes long, respectively, have become increasingly popular.

“I used to always watch movies and I would watch TV series more so than even movies because I liked the longness of them to now, that my standings for the week are that I have spent 17 hours on Snapchat and nine hours on TikTok,” undecided freshman Emily Marlowe said.

Generation Z has become so used to getting a message quickly, and who can blame them? In effect, they often struggle with being able to focus on readings for school where the point does not become clear as fast.

“Having those like really quick videos, that are like 15 seconds (long) where I can just get the message, it feels weird having to read something all the way through,” digital storytelling junior Jayce Konopka said.

The world has certainly adapted to this decrease in attention span in younger people. One example of this is the existence of SparkNotes, a website that provides detailed summaries of novels for students so that they do not have to read the entire book.

“Knowing that I have the access to SparkNotes and so many different platforms out there that I can end up with quicker answers, even if it is just a summary, tends to affect my ambition to have to actually sit there and fully be able to take the time and attention to look at those type of material,” Marlowe explained.

These adjustments do not only exist in relation to education, however.

“When you're watching something, you're gonna be able to find that ads are shorter, and you can always skip them,” Kandel said. “People have such short attention spans that marketing companies have had to find ways to have people actually keep watching their content.”


Having a short attention span can also affect Generation Z’s social lives as it can make it more challenging to stay focused when in conversation with others.

“Sometimes, it can make me impatient when listening to a story, and things like that,” journalism freshman Belle Kokales said. “When I'm talking to my parents or family, friends, I want to hear what they have to say, but sometimes I just don't have the attention span for it.”

It is important to note that despite these decreasing attention spans, most young people still have the ability to focus on long forms of media if it interests them.

“Regarding watching a movie or a YouTube video, I have a hard time concentrating unless it's something that interests me,” computer science junior Elio Zoto said. “I'm very passionate, for example, about soccer, so if it's a highlight of a game, even if it's 20 minutes long, I would still watch it.”

A common misconception is that short attention spans amongst Generation Z is linked to disorganization and lack of ambition, but this is not the case. Zoto explained that he still works hard in his classes and accomplishes everything necessary.

“I still get my work done. I still have a list to do things for my day,” he said.

Checking text messages and social media seems like such a quick task, but in reality, it can cause hours of distraction.

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“I think that because the videos can be so short, and it can be quick to check social media,” Konopka said. “I do that, and it ends up taking a really long time, where I go into Instagram to just check it, then I end up just scrolling through reels for half an hour. And then I'm like, 'Wait, I should be watching this lecture that I'm a part of.’”

Additionally, the distraction these short forms of media create has the potential to prevent users from living in the moment.

“I can be watching a video or a movie or hanging out with friends, and regardless, that urgency or temptation to respond to my snapchat messages and whatnot is still definitely very prominently there,” Marlowe said.

Even when in conversation, paying full attention to the other person is not always an easy task. Because it is challenging for adolescents and young adults to focus on one thing, they often find themselves combatting losing focus by overstimulating.

“When I'm on FaceTime with my mom or something, I'll be scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat while I listen to what she's saying to me,” Kandel said.

The older group of Generation Z, who are about 16 to 25 years old right now, were the last people who were born — and partially grew up — in a world where easily accessible media and technology had not taken over. 

With that being said, they are still severely affected by these things. The younger group of Generation Z, as well as Generation Alpha, are even more affected, though, as they have been handed technological devices from the moment they were born.

“He's kind of grown into it, and he always has to be stimulated by something, or else he'll lose interest,” Konopka said in regards to his 14 year old cousin. “So if we're doing something like talking and everything, then he's really interested, but then if we're in a car, he has to be on his phone, he has to be talking to somebody.”

Kandel has worked as a summer camp counselor in the past, and he noticed something similar — these kids need continuous stimulation.

“They'd always want to be doing something or going somewhere,” he said. “Let's say if it was raining, they wouldn't really sit in the bunk and chill; they wanted to get up.”

With the advances in technology and media that has come in the past 20 years, and especially the past 10, comes consequences, one of which being a continuously decreasing attention span as a human race.

“I think that that dopamine that you get from being on technology is just not being used a healthy amount,” Kokales said. “I feel like people should be getting it from social interactions, working out, and more natural (ways) ... I just feel like it's gonna impact people, how they are socially and make ... attention span even worse.”


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