Stop Saying Millennials Have Short Attention Spans

Thanks to our obsession with technology, the distracted millennial has an attention span shorter than a goldfish…

At least, this is the headline-grabbing fact that older generations throw at me when they are bemoaning the evils of social media.

Just the other day, I was speaking to an older man about how journalism has changed now that most people read their news via social media.

It wasn’t long before he started griping about how little millennials read and how basic journalism has gotten. For a little while, I listened to him mourn “the folks who read more than headlines” and the “death of longform journalism”.

But then I lost interest…

Popular news will have you believe that the attention of millennials is so fickle, we cannot spend more than 15 seconds on an article without losing interest.

Media organizations groan about the attention span of their readers when they discover that for every person that clicks on an article, few continue to read it for much longer than a few seconds.

What these organizations don’t acknowledge, much less understand, is how many articles we are confronted with every day. Our readership is no longer confined to the folds of a single newspaper. We are inundated with reading material on Facebook, on Twitter, on Medium, in newspapers, on Reddit and in our good old-fashioned emails.

It would be impossible to read everything, so we must choose which headlines we give a mere cursory glance to and which articles we dedicate our full attention to. The sheer number of articles we are confronted with means that, inevitably, the articles we throw to the wayside after a couple seconds of inquiry will outnumber the articles that draw us in for more careful examination.

Our attention for journalism is not diminishing. At the end of the day, we are reading just as much as our forebears (if not more), but the amount of material at our fingertips has skewed the average time to look as though our attention span has all but disappeared. Far from being passive consumers, we have to be brutal about how, where and why we allocate our time when we turn on our phone.

It can be argued that this actually makes journalism better. It streamlines writing and forces the author to think about how to retain the reader’s attention when they are competing with thousands of other memes, videos and hyperlinks in the information vortex.

Photo Credit: The Odyssey Online

But many people would agree with the man I was speaking to earlier. They are unable to see the positives and are terrified of the direction that technology is taking us.

An anonymous respondent to a recent Pew Internet study on the “hyperconnected generation” wrote:

“I wonder if we will even be able to sustain attention on one thing for a few hours — going to a classical concert or film, for instance. Will concerts be reduced to 30 minutes? Will feature-length films become anachronistic?”

These ideas have a way of seeping into the public consciousness without us even knowing where they came from.If you honestly think technology has made millennials that short of attention, find out how many t.v. shows we have binge-watched in the past month and then tell us we can’t focus on a task!

These people are not the first generation to think they are better in some way than the next. And they certainly won’t be the last. Just give me a few decades and I’m sure I will join you in lamenting the apparent evil of some new way of living. But, in this case, there is not enough evidence to suggest they are right and more than enough to suggest they are wrong.

I scoured the internet for articles about the “attention deficit generation”. Most of what I found relied on a study, written for advertisers and conducted by Microsoft, about human attention. The research itself is deeply ambiguous and the articles written about it draw hopelessly simplistic and unjustified inferences from it. The researchers conclude that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015 (one second less than a goldfish). But the non-peer-reviewed study doesn’t even look at “attention spans” or specify how the numbers they cite were attained. Plus, there is no data to suggest that the correlation has anything to do with our use of mobile technology.

Both the BBC, Policy Viz and the Genetic Literacy Project have criticized the conclusions drawn from this study and have explored the fallacy behind the idea that attention spans are shrinking.

But despite all of this, the myth persists.

“Although print is declining publishers have never been read by more people,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting at ZenithOptimedia. “The growth of devices has been at the forefront of this shift from traditional paper-based consumption to mobile, tablet and desktop consumption.”

Far from being a generation of “instant gratification” and “quick fixes”, we are a generation that consumes information like oxygen.

A recent study found that 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older. And 43% of millennials saying they read on a daily basis, compared to 40% of older adults. Imagine how much we must read on our smart phones every day!

Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute, reminds us:

“Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually can function has changed.”

And that’s exactly what these surveys don’t take into account. Attention is complex and poorly understood, even today. It would be interesting for a proper, peer-reviewed scientific study to research this area more fully. But until we do, there is no evidence to suggest that millennials have shorter attention spans or that it is caused by our smart phones.

Sorry, Gen X, you’ll have to come up with something else!

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