With the coming of every new generation, the attention span of the average American is getting progressively shorter. Many would argue that this change is causing problems for young Americans both intellectually and socially. The United States has struggled recently in terms of educational performance, and this may be a product of what David Marcovitz calls the “instant gratification culture” in his article “Is Educational Technology Shortening Student Attention Spans?” (Marcovitz and Son 8). One example of this culture can be seen in the way in which students are taught. According to Marcovitz, “We teach them facts and reward them with digital candy and then wonder why they can’t sit still without the candy” (Marcovitz and Son 8). One example of this “digital candy” is the LeapFrog line of products, which teaches children by hiding information within an enjoyable, interactive video game or computer program. This method can disguise information as another game objective, another level to beat, rather than presenting it as something to which one should connect and should thoroughly absorb. Marcovitz’s point implies that the blame for the shorter attention span lies on those who provide such “digital candy” and enable this style of education.
Another view of the attention span problem presents a natural human response as the culprit. Marcovitz uses the example of computer animations of biological processes to prove this point. He asks, “After seeing the flower bloom in a minute, who has the patience to wait for it to bloom in real time?” (Marcovitz and Son 9). According to that argument, short attention spans are a natural consequence of and response to the ease and speed with which one can now acquire information. However, that response also trains one’s brain to gather information and then quickly move on to something else. As a result, students today are too easily distracted to allow them to gain an in-depth understanding of the subjects that they are taught. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr describes the change in education by saying, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (qtd. in Crovitz). Moving quickly along the surface, the rider of the Jet Ski can only see a few feet into the ocean. However, the diver who is moving slowly through the depths of the ocean can experience life forms that only reside hundreds of feet beneath the surface. Similarly, technology distracts students from deep exploration of a particular area of the “sea of words,” causing them to zip along more of the surface.
I have also seen Marcovitz’s flower question in my social interaction, not just academics. For example, it is common to subconsciously ask, “Who has the patience to make a phone call when I can just send a Facebook message?” or, “Why should a write a long response when I can just reply in a 140-character tweet?” Rather than “diving in the sea” of good, personal friendships, young people often “zip along the surface” of hundreds of Facebook “friendships” or Twitter followers. In fact, today’s children often define the success of their social lives in terms of the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers that they have obtained. Unfortunately, the expansive networks and immense number of “friends” that today’s youth make via technology come at the cost of useful social, communicative, and interactive skills. The investment of time and energy required for these skills to develop also leads to the formation of strong bond between friends. However, technology allows one to forgo “diving deep” into a few personal bonds. Instead, one can just “zip along the surface” by making many superficial, fast connections. Once again, quantity takes precedence over quality.
Despite the abundance of discussions in the news about the problems with the younger generation, one could also argue that it is not necessarily fair to assume that shorter attention spans constitute some great ill of modern education. In fact, as John David Son claims, it is not even fair to classify the change in the ways in which students’ minds work as a shortening of attention spans. Rather, he says, students today have gained an “uncanny ability to multitask” which “only enhances the learning opportunities” (Marcovitz and Son 8). Because the human brain absorbs more information the younger it is, Son’s claim that “students today are born with ‘mouse in hand’” actually highlights an attempt to capitalize on enhanced learning opportunities, not an educational faux pas. To the contrary, the typical, old-fashioned classroom setting in which students are taught one item at a time is a waste of the immense capabilities of a young mind (Marcovitz and Son 8). Technology works not only on the mind, by helping it to take advantage of learning capabilities, but also on the information that we absorb. Tools such as games and animations can present information in a more interactive, fun, and engaging way. Son argues that as a result, “technology has the power to capture our children’s attention,” rather than shorten it (Marcovitz and Son 9). Perhaps the most important impact technology has had on education, however, is the sheer wealth of information that students and teachers now have available to them. Whereas in the past the resources available to students have been limited to those contained within the classroom, today’s students can access information at any time. They can also interact with other students from all over the world via Skype, FaceTime, and other communication software. The consequential increase in discussion and access to information can only help the learning process. As Adam Thierer put it, “Were we really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty? I’ll take information overload over information poverty any day” (qtd. in Crovitz).
The benefits that the technology-driven increase in access to resources has provided in education can carry over to one’s social life. Social networks and their simple means of communication and friendship allow someone in today’s society to make connections with more people than ever before. As a result, one is exposed to a greater variety of people of different backgrounds, geographical locations, cultures, and personalities and must learn to interact successfully with all of these groups. The ability to interact and communicate with vast groups of people produces a greater demand for good social skills, not a lack thereof. Additionally, technology-based social networks present greater opportunities for face-to-face social interaction. For example, people can organize parties, meetings, and other social events by creating a “Facebook event” or spreading information to more people via Twitter. Candidates for a job can contact former employers for references or establish relationships with prospective employers via LinkedIn. People often speak of job searches, internship opportunities, and invitations to social outings as being a matter of “who you know.” Notice the phrase mentions nothing of “how well you know someone.” In such situations, having any sort of connection, even if only on the Internet, establishes the potential for future, face-to-face interaction.
The issue of whether technology affects attention spans is often presented as a simple “yes or no” question, as is evident in Marcovitz and Son’s article. But perhaps the better question to propose is “Why question it?” As L. Gordon Crovitz said in the title of his article, the answer to the question, “Is Technology Good or Bad?” is simply “Yes.” Technology has advanced greatly in recent years and has redefined many aspects of the modern world. But what does it matter? Both sides of the issue seem to confess to a difference in the way people think as a result of technology. As Son observed, in a technologically advanced classroom, “a few students didn’t even realize they were learning” (Marcovitz and Son 9). So technology causes problems with learning because it creates distractions, but distractions, in this case from the fact that one is learning, can actually help the process. However, the debate over whether technology has a negative effect on students is moot. Distraction in education does not delineate right from wrong; it simply shows an evolution in the way our minds, as well as the world as a whole, works.
In terms of social behavior, Marcovitz reflects on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which had to be interrupted after three hours for a dinner break (Marcovitz and Son 8). However, in the modern world, 12 percent of people can’t make it through an hour-long worship service without checking email (Crovitz). Clearly, people’s attention spans have become shorter over the years, but the time before one must check an email or eat dinner at a debate is hardly a pressing issue worthy of intense argument. The implications of distraction in relation to communication are also not worthy of such polarizing debate. Regardless of changes in the ways in which people communicate, some form of communication will always be a necessary aspect of human life. Consequently, there will always be a reason to aspire to be a savvy communicator. Whether the means of communication is Facebook, written letters, or cave paintings is irrelevant; the point is to be effective with whatever communication techniques exist in one’s society. Once again, technology does not change for right or wrong, for good or bad; it merely changes.
Crovitz, L. Gordon. “Is Technology Good or Bad? Yes.” The Wall Street Journal, 23 August 2010.
Marcovitz, David, and John David Son. “Is Educational Technology Shortening Student Attention Spans?” Learning & Leading with Technology 36.1 (2008): 8-9.