The Attention Span of our Children’s Generation


While reading Chapter 1 of Rheingold’s book, I was drawn in by the concept of being mindful of our mental habits. I thought the experiment he did with the laptop usage of his students was brilliant, as it it forced them to “start paying attention to the way they pay attention (pg.36)”. Having a family full of young children, I began trying to apply this concept to my nieces and nephews as they are a very unique generation that doesn’t  know life without mobile devices and using them to engage in the constantly updating digital media obsession. I grew up in the 90’s and throughout the majority of my life, mobile devices and all of the current forms of social and digital media did not exist. My obsession/addiction to constant digital and social media began in 2007 with Facebook, and spiraled out of control in 2012 when I got my first smartphone. However, this is not true for my nieces and nephews of 10 and 12 years old.

My siblings use their mobile devices to pacify their children, which by default led to the children mastering the devices. By the ages of 7, they had Facebook and Instagram profiles and found joy in updating selfies and getting likes from their followers (who were always immediate family members). When Rheingold mentioned using digital media as a means of control by choosing when to drown out undesirable stimuli, all I could imagine were my nieces and nephews on their smartphones at the dinner table, during church services, and in the classroom. I began to wonder since they started using digital media at such a young age, how would their abilities to multitask develop?

Rheingold mentioned the concept of “successful multitasking (pg. 37)”, being able to accomplish goals without degraded performance. I thought of my eldest nephew, he is 12 years old and an obsessive gamer. He plays his Xbox all day at home, and he plays games on his smartphone all day until he can get home. He is an average C student, and has a small group of friends who are all gamers just like he is. In contrast, my 10 year old niece is OBSESSED with Instagram, she’s on it more than I am and that’s insane in my opinion. However, she’s a straight A student, an incredible pianist, and has a large group of very diverse friends. Perhaps as Rheingold mentioned, she was either “attentionally endowed” or perhaps she has greater mental control.

I wonder how these children will continue to develop mentally and socially, and if digital media is actually harming them in any way. I googled the topic and found a few articles of questionable credibility, however they were very interesting. The site had a an article titled How digital technology and TV can inhibit children socially. The article mentioned:

Researchers discovered that depriving 11 and 12-year-olds for just five days of all digital media – including television – left them better able to read others’ emotions.
Prof Patricia Greenfield, the senior study author and professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, said: “Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs.“Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues, losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people, is one of the costs.”

I wen on to discover an article on titled “Kids, Tech and Those Shrinking Attention Spans”, this article mentioned:

We hear it all the time — increased exposure to technology is rewiring our kids’ brains, making it tougher to reach and teach them. A Pew Internet survey of nearly 2,500 teachers finds that 87% believe new technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans” and 64% say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

These statistics are a bit troubling to me, and I would love to develop a way to make young children mindful of their time on mobile devices, computers and watching television shows. If parents monitor their children’s time on smartphones and gaming will it make them prioritize their tasks while on theses devices, or will it only make them more excited or anxious for their next opportunity to use them? My problem is finding a way to perhaps get my nieces and nephews see using these devices as privileged form of entertainment rather than a way of life. This would be incredibly difficult because it has been life as far back as they can remember, and it is life for everyone they know.

Posted on October 19, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. There is a great deal of truth in your post. Specifically, your points on the social and cognitive development for kids immersed in technology, and the need for moderation. To add to your point, I would suggest that short attention spans in children can be cultivated by short attention spans in parents. Isn’t it easier to give your child an iPad during a 7 hour road trip instead of insisting they entertain themselves? Moderation in a child’s exposure to media is, I would suggest, a by-product of self-discipline on behalf of the parent/guardian.

  2. Michelle Mailey Noben

    I found your insight and personal experience with your niece and nephew really interesting, thanks for sharing. I don’t have kids myself, and my own niece and nephew are only 3 and 4, so your observations reflect an age group I don’t personally have access to. I, too, am very interested to observe how my niece and nephew’s lives will be different from mine as we grow up almost 30 years apart.

    A trend I’ve observed in “my” kids (both better at operating an iPad than me, hands down), especially with my 4-year-old niece is a constant readiness to be photographed, then looking to decide whether she likes how the photo, and she, looks. Personally, I find it a little disturbing that such a young child should be at all concerned about her appearance and so constantly ready to “perform”. It seems to me there’s plenty of time for that later, but it also strikes me as a natural response to the ubiquitous presence of digital technology.

    Do you personally sense a lack of attention span in your niece and nephew? They seem to be well adjusted. Do you feel that generations just naturally assimilate and make do with the technology that surrounds them? Do you think there will be a point that humanity cannot keep up with technology or are we capable of conforming to any situation?


  3. I have an almost 10 month old, our one and only. He plays an app called Peekaboo Barn. It took him five minutes a day for three days to figure out where all the animals were coming out, when he had to touch the screen and when to sit and watch. I don’t think that we as parents could have taught him those concepts as fast or as effectively as that app did. Meaning, I definitely think there is a place for technology at an early age.

    On the other hand, like most things, it seems balance is the key. Furthermore, it must be the parents responsibility to not only recognize when a child’s online or tech habits become unhealthy, but also to adjust their daily schedule to steer the child back on course. After all, they are kids and they need guidance. Jessa addresses the parent aspect above perfectly.

    The biggest problem I have seen in kids, even those that just watch too much tv without internet exposure, is they lack imagination. When the kids can have endless channels or sites exposing them to endless amounts of stimulation, they never have to use their imagination. I haven’t even heard of kids playing cops and robbers or cowboys and indians or other games that require the use of imagination. I guess why would you if you could play an online worldwide RPG game, with millions of others from, in 1080p graphics from the comfort of the couch.

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