Friday, 15 June 2012

A Short-Attention-Span Culture

The question of whether computers are contributing to a decrease in peoples attention spans has plagued me a lot over the last few years. I know for a fact that I don't have the patience to sit down and read a book for hours like I once did. Recently I decided to read a few more of the classics and I found it very hard to maintain my attention at first. I'm so used to reading books that are easy to read that the more difficult language was hard to adapt to, but having read many of these books in the past, I persevered because I knew it was worth it. But what about young people who have never known the joys of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen? I fear they will just give up and move onto something else because it's too much of an effort.

E-readers have contributed to this problem in my experience because they make it so easy to flick between books. Even when I'm reading something on my Kindle I'm thinking about all the other books on my Kindle that I could be reading, and instead of focusing on one I read a bit, then move to something else for a few pages. The result is I have a lot of half-read books on my Kindle. Does anyone else have this problem, or is it just me?

Although the internet has been a godsend for writers in terms of research and connecting with readers, one of the major drawbacks is that there is so much to distract you from actually writing, especially if you are a procrastinator. Instead of focusing on my manuscript I find myself writing a few lines and then checking sales figures on Amazon (which does nothing to encourage me!), then looking at my emails, finding books to download, reading reviews, checking social networking sites, skimming newspapers, and basically doing everything except writing. It definitely comes down to a question of willpower and mine is so lacking that I've seriously considered disconnecting my broadband so I can get some work done! My sadly dimishing attention span reached alarming levels last week when I found I'd been listening to the radio in my car in scan mode (ie. when you hear a few seconds of a station before it moves to the next one), for twenty minutes without even realizing it. Flicking from one thing to the next has come to seem so normal to me that it felt perfectly alright to hear just a few seconds of a song before moving on.

This article from The New York Times confirmed my fears. According to the article:

Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores. (this study was conducted before Twitter and Facebook became popular).

The opinion piece also discusses a book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, in which the author argues that "the Internet is leading to a short-attention-span culture. He cites a pile of research showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people’s abilities to engage in deep thought or serious contemplation."

Having felt real despair when reading some of the books that have made it onto the bestseller's lists lately, I have to agree with the view that readers are much less willing today to study the works of great writers and scholars, and  "immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom".
A citizen of the Internet has a very differet experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference.....The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

While there are definite advantages to this breaking down of hierarchies, the real degeneration in literary standards is of great concern to me. I can't help feeling that in this fast-paced, superficial, short-attention-span culture, something invaluable is being lost.


  1. I think the problem is that you're not reading the right books. ;) I know when I'm reading okay/good books I go on the computer for a while and then read. But when I'm reading an amazing book, forget about it. :)

    1. You could be right, Pam. I have had some trouble lately finding books that really engross me, but I also believe me attention span is not what it once was. There's just too many distractions and I'm not very good at tuning them out! It could also be old age creeping up but I prefer to blame the internet!

  2. The fact alone that the acronym TL;DR has appeared indicates a decline in attention span in my opinion. And as a writer I agree - the internet is absolutely horrible for my productivity! One thing I have noticed is that when watching movies or a series episode on my computer I often pause the video to check my e-mails/blog/etc. I can't even pay attention to one thing for the 20 min. some shorter episodes are!

    1. Sorry to hear about your lack of attention span Kahtarina, but at the same time relieved that it's not just me having these problems! I find that I'm not watching as many movies as I once did because they are just too darned long, and like you I struggle to maintain concentration for shorter episodes.

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