Our shrinking attention spans: the causes – and the fix


Attention! If you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering what has happened to yours.

Dr. Whitney Legler, a neuropsychologist/psychologist with a practice in Vero Beach, says people of all ages are experiencing shortened attention spans, caused by several ongoing social factors and exacerbated by COVID-19 lifestyle changes.

“Technology certainly has a lot to do with it,” she says. “It overstimulates us with constant reminders, distracting us and taking our attention away from what we’re doing. Bings and the other sounds that our phones and tablets now make constantly intrude, encouraging us to react quickly.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, a study done by a research team at the University of California, Irvine working with Microsoft Research found that in 2004 people averaged 150 seconds on any computer screen before switching to another screen. By 2012, it had declined to 75 seconds, and between 2016 and 2021, it shrank to 47 seconds.

Dr. Peggy Russell, professor of psychology at Indian River State College’s main campus in Fort Pierce, believes that “distractability” is increasingly at play in our lives, regardless of our ages.

A study published by ScienceDirect.com reports that distractibility, or a fleeting attention span, refers to lapses in the ability to concentrate on a stimulus or task and sustain the requisite degree of focused attention to persevere with information processing or task attainment.

Dr. Russell says declining concentration is related to “the accessibility of things in our environment that can distract us and our expectation of getting information and entertainment quickly, delivered to us in small ‘bytes.’”

Countless distractions “vie for our attention,” she adds, “leaving us feeling frazzled. Our social media addiction makes it harder for us to think and daydream, because we’re not choosing to do so.”

Dr. Russell says we can make the choice to “stretch our brains”: electing to do something that increases our mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined by the American Psychological Association as awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings. Mindfulness can help people avoid destructive or automatic habits and responses by learning to observe their thoughts, emotions and other present-moment experiences without judging or reacting to them.

“That means different things to different people,” she says. “For some, it may be meditation. I work on cars or finish antique furniture. [During those activities] my brain is engaged in sustained attention, doing something I enjoy.”

Dr. Legler says modern life as most of us live it causes us to be spread too thin. “The content of what we take in daily is increasing,” she says. “Our brains aren’t designed to be exhausted.”

A large part of Dr. Legler’s practice involves working with children. “Since COVID-19, I’m seeing a huge increase in attention deficit disorder diagnoses,” she says. Teachers are shortening lessons and even college professors are making lectures briefer to accommodate students’ shorter attention spans.

“Many high school students can’t sit still long enough to read,” Dr. Legler says – “even if it’s on a screen.”

Our frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until we’re 22 to 23 years old, Dr. Legler notes.

“That’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for attention, concentration and decision-making. The interference from outside stimuli in childhood is affecting that development and I’m not even sure we yet know to what extent.”

A simple way to extend young children’s attention span is to do something they truly enjoy and involve them directly on every level, says Dr. Legler.

In line with that, Dr. Russell believes an active presenter can engage people and hold their attention. “We need a sage on the stage, not a guide on the side,” she offers.

She firmly believes that “baby sitting by devices” contributes to the problem. “Parental attention has decreased, forcing kids to choose on their own how to entertain themselves.

Many of them grow up not wanting to devote much time to paying attention.”

The pandemic and post-pandemic increase in mental health problems such depression, anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation all have an effect on our attention spans, Dr. Russell adds.

The inability to pay sustained attention has serious repercussions, according to the Wall Street Journal report. Studies consistently show that blood pressure rises and heart rate increases with fast attention shifts. A study in the journal Media Psychology reports that distracted subjects experienced higher anxiety and stress and lower productivity.

The researchers at UCI and Microsoft found that frequently shifting attention leads to more errors and delays in finishing tasks, known as a “switch cost.” When we spend time switching attention and reorienting back to a task, we drain our precious and limited cognitive resources. It’s like having a gas tank that leaks, leaving less fuel for the mission at hand.

While there is no simple fix for this society-wide problem, simple breathing exercises and other meditation techniques can help individuals regain a stronger ability to concentrate.

Dr. Whitney Legler is a neuropsychologist/psychologist. She has an M.A. and doctorate and has completed externships at U.S. Naval Hospital in Illinois and Lakeview Neurological Rehabilitation Hospital in Wisconsin. She is certified by American Psychological Association and National Academy of Neuropsychology. She is accepting new patients at Legler Psychology Associates, 3003 Cardinal Dr., Vero Beach. 772-221-5554.

Dr. Peggy Russell has a B.S. in psychology from University of Florida, M.A. in counseling psychology from Boston College and Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Florida State University. She is a professor at Indian River State College.

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