It is something many of us have felt for years; an issue perhaps created by the invention of the television and exacerbated by the smartphone. And now, the research is finally catching up with what many of us—particularly those of a certain age—have long sensed to be true: attention spans are shrinking.
A recent study on the relationship between smartphone use and inattention conducted by Dr. Jeremy Marty-Dugas of the Vision and Attention Lab at University of Waterloo and published by the American Psychological Association found “significant positive correlations” between smartphone use and inattention on four key measures—particularly when observing absentminded smartphone use, which is defined as use without a specific purpose in mind.
A separate study conducted by researchers from Oxford, Harvard, Western Australia, Manchester and King’s College London published in the journal World Psychiatry found spending so much time online and inundated by digital distractions may be leading to “acute and sustained alterations” in how our brains process memories, our attention spans and our social cognition, including self-esteem. This study also found children who spend more time online exhibit decreased verbal intelligence.
One way these changes manifest is in how memories are formed—or not—around information we have easy, digital access to. This explains why many of us can easily recall phone numbers from our childhood when we had to dial the number manually, but can’t remember the number of a friend or coworker stored in our cellphone.
While everyone who spends time online is susceptible to these behaviors, they are experienced at greater levels by younger generations who have spent nearly their entire lives with devices in their pockets and the internet impacting almost everything they do. In less than a generation, we have gone from “being online” meaning something that we do briefly and temporarily to a near-constant state of being.
In addition to the academic research emerging from this field, popular, best-selling books like Johann Hari’s recently released “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again” and Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads” also discuss the issue at length.
These changes to the way people—especially young people—experience the world, learn, form memories and focus their attention are already having a profound impact on education. When it comes to the ubiquity of the internet and readily accessible smartphones and other devices, we cannot put that toothpaste back into the tube.
For centuries, the higher education model of a professor standing in front of a room full of students and lecturing remained largely unchanged. In recent decades, however, technology has allowed for—and in some cases forced—innovation in the classroom. Rather than requiring students to learn in an outdated model that was developed before smartphones, in order to be effective, our institutions must be responsive to this changing reality and the differences between students of 2022 and students who came of age before smartphones.
In practice, this includes more hands-on teaching and learning, more technological engagement with the subject, and more opportunities for cross-curricular and co-curricular learning. There will always be a place for lecture and the teaching of theory within our academic programs, but the more access we have to technology, the less importance those methods will have.
As I have written previously, the nationwide drop in college enrollment since the beginning of the pandemic is a threat to our regional and national economies. One way of getting more students back into the classroom may be by creating programs and courses that are more appealing to young adults, afford them the opportunity to learn in ways that they find engaging and interesting and which match the changes we have seen to attention spans and modes of learning.
We must meet students where they are at and provide the instruction and services they need in order to be equipped with the training and skills necessary to meet the needs of employers in our 21st century workforce. In an ever-changing society, we need to be preparing our students to be global citizens who are able to adapt to the demands placed on them by those changes. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo and we cannot provide an antiquated education that no longer serves those who are receiving it.
San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim Chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College district, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]