The Blog

Texting, TV and Tech Trashing Children's Attention Spans

Although teachers see a number of advantages in young people's heavy use of digital media (especially in their ability to find information quickly and efficiently), it is the potentially harmful effects that have families, educators and policy makers worried.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Two studies on teachers' views of the impact of digital media on children's learning were just released, one by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and the other by Common Sense Media.

Although teachers see a number of advantages in young people's heavy use of digital media (especially in their ability to find information quickly and efficiently), it is the potentially harmful effects that have families, educators and policy makers worried. New York Times' Matt Richtel summarizes these concerns in an article about the studies: "There is a widespread belief among teachers that students' constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks."

Nearly three quarters of the 685 public and private K-12 teachers surveyed in the Common Sense Media online poll believe that students use of entertainment media (including TV, video games, texting and social networking) "has hurt student's attention spans a lot or somewhat."

Likewise, in the Pew online survey, which polled 2,462 middle and high school teachers, 87% report that these technologies are creating "an easily distracted generation with short attention spans," and 64% say that digital technologies "do more to distract students than to help them academically."

It was the teachers who commented on the findings in the New York Times ' story who captured my attention.

Hope Molina-Porter, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, who has taught for 14 years, says that she has had to become an entertainer. "I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention."

She -- like the other teachers interviewed for the New York Times article -- says that she doesn't pull back from the challenges of capturing her students' attention and of engaging them in school work, but she wonders if teachers are adding to the problems by altering their teaching styles to adjust to kids with shorter attention spans.

"Are we contributing to this?" Ms. Molina-Porter asked. "What's going to happen when [children] don't have constant entertainment?"

While there may be no long-term research on the impact of digital technology on children's attention spans and persistence, there is enough evidence to take this issue quite seriously. And I agree with Ms. Molina-Porter that the answer is not mimicking the fast pace of digital media.

The answer is to teach children to pay attention and to be persistent!

I know that sounds horrible and boring -- like chaining children to desks and making them pay attention by giving them drill and practice skill teaching, but it doesn't have to be that way -- nor should it be.

Here are three examples:

  • Give children a chance to explore and answer their own questions. Laura Schulz of MIT and one of her graduate students, Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, created a study to examine curiosity. They gave children jack-in-the-box toys and found that when children weren't told how the toy worked, they remained curious, they persevered and they continued to explore the toy to figure out how it worked, even when they had the opportunity to play with a new toy.

  • Give children active games to play that promote focused attention and self control. A group of researchers headed by Megan McClelland of Oregon State use a game to assess these skills -- the Head-to-Toes Task. In one study in the fall of their preschool year, more than 300 children were asked to do the opposite of what the experimenter told them -- if told to touch their heads, the children were to touch their toes; if told to touch their toes, the children were to touch their heads. The children thus had to pay attention to the directions, remember the rules and inhibit the tendency to go on automatic and follow the directions of the experimenter. The researchers found this game predicted the children's literacy, vocabulary and math skills in the spring of their preschool year. They also found that those children who improved their focused attention and self control skills made the greatest gains -- equivalent to having an extra month of prekindergarten in terms of their gains in literacy and math skills, and an extra 2.8 months in vocabulary skills.
  • Use digital media to promote these skills. Michael Posner of University of Oregon and his colleagues used digital media to create engaging computer-based games that specifically teach children to pay attention. They gave 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds five days of training with these games and compared them to comparable groups of children with no training. They found that even with such a brief training, the children had less trouble controlling themselves. The researchers also found that when children's ability to pay attention improved, their reasoning and thinking skills also improved.
  • Of course, there is a huge need -- as James P. Steyer, founder and CEO, Common Sense Media, says in the press release of his organization's study -- to use digital media wisely: "This survey is yet another reminder of how critical it is to consistently guide our kids to make good media choices and balance the amount of time they spend with any media and all of their other activities."

    There is another need too -- one that I am afraid may be lost in the discussions about the findings of these studies. The need is to use what we have learned from research to create engaging ways to teach children to pay attention and to stick with challenging tasks!