What the Heck Happened to our Attention Spans?

By Josh Catone
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“The addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds – the same as a goldfish,” said the BBC in 2002. “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things,” Ted Selker, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the British news agency. “If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” Boy was he right.

No time has it been more evident that our attention spans have been severely diminished than on today’s web. Twitter, for example, asks us to reduce our thoughts to just 140 characters, while 12seconts.tv asks us to do that same in just twelve seconds. And the average length of the 12 billion videos US Internet users consumed via the web in May? Just 2.7 minutes. Clearly, our attention on the web is fleeting.

In May, web usability consultant Jakob Neilsen found that the more words you add to a page the more people skim it. In other words, our short attention spans can’t handle long articles and we end up just skipping to the bottom. In my time as a blogger, I’ve generally found that shorter articles or articles that are broken up with sub headlines and bullet points or images tend to get more comments those that are mainly lengthy blocks of text (like this one, for example).

In the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, author Nick Carr asks if the Internet is making us stupid. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr writes. “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.”

Carr blames his heavy use of the Internet over the past few years for rewiring his brain to make it harder to absorb information that doesn’t come in bite-sized chunks. He probably has a point.

How Attention Works

The part of your brain located between the medulla oblongata and the midbrain is something called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is something like a filter between your conscious and subconscious. It’s involved in primitive functions like the ability to be awake or asleep, and the ability to direct attention toward certain stimuli.

“The job of the RAS is to filter and screen all incoming stimuli and ‘decide’ which stimuli should merit the attention of the conscious,” writes Dr. Kathie Nunley. There is a hierarchy at play that determines what our brains decide to pay attention to. Physical needs come first, but after that our brains tend to gravitate toward novel experiences. Our shortened attention spans can be blamed on the heightened pace at which we encounter these novel experiences in today’s media saturated world.

“At one time a young child could master or learn his surroundings and they remained relatively unchanged. A toy or two, a dozen people, a home sparsely decorated. Even the world outside the home had relatively limited novelty to offer after the first few years of ones’ life. This allowed the RAS and attention to be drawn to other things, primarily self-made choices and more complex types of thinking and learning of abstract concepts,” says Nunley.

Today, though, television, the Internet, and other external stimuli “have trained our minds to perceive and interpret quickly and be ready to accept the next presentation.” That’s why we have trouble reading long articles — our brains are ready to jump to the next stimuli before we’ve fully absorbed the first.

(Note, newer research has presented more complex models of how we pay attention to things, but they’re really beyond the scope of this blog post.)

The Internet of Today is Made for Short Attention Spans

140 character posts. 12 second videos. Constant activity streams. Acronyms up the wazoo (er, I’m sorry, AUTW). Today’s web is built for short attention spans, and it seems to be getting worse. Many new services appear almost explicitly designed to cater to shorter and shorter attention spans.

Look at stimTV, for example, which presents viewers with ultra-short video clips and asks them to make snap judgments on whether the clips deserve their attention or not, before quickly loading up the next clip. Not only does stimTV operate on the premise that anything over a few seconds long would cause us to lose interest, it doesn’t even think we have the attention spans to do the channel surfing ourselves.

Worse, as our attention spans get shorter, the information overload is becoming more and more of a problem for many users. As Nunley said, the pace of novel experiences has increased substantially since the birth of television and the Internet. Our attention is spread so thin, it is no wonder that we can’t devote much time to any one thing.

What Do We Do About It?

There’s really no simple answer to that (except turn off the TV and the computer and go read a book, fly a kite, take a walk, etc.). I think ideally, we need to stop focusing on getting so much information, so quickly. It’s okay to miss some things. It’s okay not to put up a post about every breaking story as soon as it happens. It’s okay not to tweet everything you see or do. It’s okay not to have 5,000 friends.

I think that instead of designing services that help us create more and more micro content, we should be trying to create and promote services that help us to filter the best of the more intelligent, thoughtful fare.

What are you thoughts on the effect of the Internet on attention span? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Jeff

    A very interesting article… yes, I made it to the bottom. Funny, as I was reading, agreeing with close to everything you are saying, I’m consciously saying to myself, ‘My attention span is good and I -will- make it to the bottom!’
    In all seriousness, your points are all too true. Often, I’ve even gotten pretty good at picking out the keywords on a page, at least the ones that I’m thinking about prior to reading. For me, this is especially true with articles about software tools and the like. Given three or four paragraphs, I think that I can find all instances of ‘search’, ‘engine’, or ‘optimization’ in about 3.5932 seconds.

  • ionix5891

    you lost me after first paragraph :p

  • n0other

    Yes, sadly, the Internet is making us stupid. Day after day we spend jumping from one information to another, that leads not only to short attention spans, but to bad memory. Brain just can’t differentiate between the good and the bad info anymore (the good should go into a safe and the bad, well, it shoudn’t go anywhere).

    I even found myself trying to skip this article, then I though, hey, that’s not right, this article *is* about not skipping.

  • I think this is so true, I can notice it myself.

  • littlejim84

    Good article. Thanks.

    Must admit, I’ve noticed the effect on attention span and of short term memory!

    Gulp! :(

  • Ben

    Amazing i was reading how we just skip to the bottom. then i did it!
    Looking only at the headings on the way down.

    I seem to quickly judge blogs/sites – “is this good enough/interesting enough/relevant enough to take up my time?”
    I could be looking at this but there might be something better elsewhere – i’ll blame google (why not?) – it has tuned me to expect the most relevant.

  • schlub

    How sad is it that I only got half-way through the article before I started to skim-read? :P

  • You are correct. Aside from more overarching concerns, it has affected the way we design Web sites. No big text blocks. Pretty, engaging colors. Conscious streamlining of information flow. It all centers around the concept of users are too “ADD” to stay with the info on this page if I don’t constantly give them something to keep their attention. It’s like dog trainers, giving their charges a treat every few moments to keep them focused.

  • deemaxx

    I really wonder the science of this. The internet offers information we have never had access to before. With the time I have available, I am much more critical of reading every little bit of information I come across.

    When I find a site, blog, article, information I care about I can pay attention for hours. that is the beauty of the internet. To be able to drill down on topics I am interested in.

    I think we have become much more critical as to what we want to pay attention to and what not. And since there is a lot of useless, meaningless information, sites, etc. out there I just skip most of it. I just don’t want to hear most of it.

    Yes, I have become more than anything a much more selective listener.

    Good? Bad? The verdict is still out.

  • Alex

    I seem to follow the trend of short attention spans, Normally i hang in with something for a week or 2, I’ll be doing something like rebuilding my website, then a week or so later i’ll just go and get into a game, then after that, another game, then maybe a community, and the cycle goes on.

    To date, I’ve re-designed my website 8 times, I’ve had 3 different domain names, over 4 different names, and I’ve never actually completed it.

  • Unomi

    As to add to some other comments, I come to the conclusion that quality is more important than quantity. Always. But…. What is quality? Is it quality to you, or is it quality to the mainstream? It depends on value. How to decide what has enough value to read on?

    We have certain interests, but we also have certain emotions. These two make up most of your attention spans. Thrilled or touched are mostly the seconds for short attention spans. If it doesn’t hit you, you move on.

    By experience we know what will give us certain emotions. Hence all the porn sites out there and all the other things like gossip or new things on YouTube. Humor will always give us a good time, but who will make you laugh?

    By the same experience we also know what we are interested in. This is very important to know early on in your live. You will become a very interesting person yourself when you know what you like or not. Don’t let others make these up for you. Take time for yourself to discover new things, how they work or how it relates to you. Time is short, don’t waste it.

    So if you know what you’re after, it’s fine to skip things. If it doesn’t hit you, you move on. If you can use the information you found, good. If you can’t use it, walk away. There is so much information, but also disinformation out there. Get a fine nose to pick the right things out and don’t be bothered with all the crap you don’t even want to know (and that is a lot, with a world full of twisted minds).

    That’s all. Thanks for reading.

    – Unomi –

  • Simon Plenderleith

    The post itself was a challenge for me to finish reading it ;) Great post though Josh, really enjoying the interesting discussion points you’re bringing to the Sitepoint blogs!

  • Lol. I’m guilty of skimming as well.

    Funnily enough, I recently wrote a 5-point post, and two readers have quoted what I said in their blogs.

    Short. Bullet points. No paragraphs.


  • gnarf

    I think what you describe as an attention-span problem is much more an adaption to new media-forms.

    While reading blogs for example it is good to be able to decide very fast if a certain post is worth reading or not. With the abundance of information available in the internet, efficient filtering becomes one of the major skills of being competent about the medium.

    Yes, i skipped more than half of this post. But not because i’m not able to read through a couple of pages, i can very well spend hours non-stop reading a good book or even a technical manual.
    The article just seemed to be unlikely to deliver a new point of view to this common rant.
    Possibly still it would have surprised me in the end with amazing insights. i’ll never know.

  • 2MHost.com

    I agree with you, I could’t read after “How Attention Works” subtitle!!

  • I laughed out loud at this. Sorry, not at your content, but at the fact that I only made it half way down before my brain said “skip to the end”. I did go back once I had stopped laughing and read the rest.

    I think the idea that “there maybe something better” or “am I missing something else more interesting somewhere else” is not a new concept specific to the internet though.

    Channel hopping on TV produces the same “fears” or “worries” mentioned above. With mutiple channels or pages to be read our natural thirst for knowledge is being met with bite-size chunks of information.

    My only concern with this method of information assimilation is that we never truely learn the subject matter.

    How long before someone is hurt or a disaster occures because someone only skimmed the instruction manual !

    Bit extreme maybe but not necessarily that far from the truth !?!


  • this article was way too long to read all in one go, I’ll check back later

  • Desmond K

    I have to agree with Unimo. An information overload has led us to carefully pick what we spend our precious time on.

    This is going to have a negative effect on human evolution, as it’s already obvious our attention spans are getting shorter.

    We really should turn off the TV and PC and get outside more.

  • Anonymous

    Procrastinators unite!… tomorrow.

  • Denny Wilkins

    Long ago, when the Web had unfulfilled promise, two friends of mine — longtime, prize-winning investigative reporters — left their major metro paper for an online-only journalism site (which no longer exists).

    The pitch to them: The Web has umlimited space. You can write pieces as long and in depth as you wish.

    So they signed up. After a month, their editor said this:

    Yep, write as long as you wish. But give me that long story 300 words at a time … every hour.

    The harbinger of doom …

  • ruby-lang

    To gather information we use the same neural structures our ancestors used to gather berries. With the wealth of information we have today, it should be no surprise that we just pick the low-hanging fruit and move on.

  • David Geller

    I think we just process more information. For example, I read the top of your article and then lost interest. No offense, it’s not a commentary on your article or on my attention span. It’s as much as I, particularly, was interested in the subject matter.

    I’ll do the same with hundreds of stories and articles. And of those, I read through about 10% in which I am interested. There’s just more data to process. Overall, I’m reading and learning more than I ever have at any time in my life and I’m 40 now.

  • If my body were to go the same way as my attention span I’d be prescribed steroids. I think I should do something about it.

  • Miguel Lobos

    I think there are other contributing factors / pressures to this – How many times have you been at work and your boss needs you to quickly answer a question about something that you haven’t been afforded sufficient time to adequately research and understand something? What does one do? Develops a habit of skimming / speed reading to try and pick up enough to provide a half-arsed intelligent response… Anyway, a large part of this seems to point to the notion that we are conditioned to develop this short attention span.

  • Miguel Lobos

    So, to continue the interrupted thought in my brain (friggin’ context switch!), don’t blame solely the Internet for making yourself (or anyone) stupid! There’s plenty of stupidity around all of us attempting to infect our brains…

  • I gave up reading this article after 140 characters… :O

  • Raja Sekharan

    To be truly effective in our work we have to learn to overcome these issues. These habits that we have learnt greatly reduces how much we can achieve.

    Raja Sekharan

  • S_Eye

    I agree with deemaxx!

    I do not completely agree with the article. IMHO the research is drawing conclusions out of the wrong data.

    When we search the web for a particular piece of information or article we skim through a lot of pages in search of the right information. This does not mean that the attention span of the end user is short; the user simply hasn’t found yet the info he was looking for.

    I wonder about the validity of a lot of research in this field. Having been a researcher myself in the past, I can tell that data interpretation is particularly difficult and often you come up with conclusions that have nothing to do with reality.

  • David

    I agree with gnarf and S_Eye. I’m surprised that so many of you who live on the web disparage it and yourselves so quickly.

    I’m 40 now and I’m learning more than I ever have at any point in my life including college. A large part of that is due to the Internets. Yes, I read one paragraph and move on. Yes, I skim. This allows me to go through more stuff. When I find something that looks interesting, I read it.

    It is hard to hold my attention, not because my attention span is short but because there’s so much out there that’s just an unimaginative rehash of something else I’ve already read. I don’t want to read the same thing over and over from many different perspectives, I want new perspectives… and if you skipped this comment I don’t blame you b/c it was just a “me too” comment from what gnarf posted.

  • Laura

    I think that rather than decreasing attention spans, we simply have an innundation of bad or mediocre content. Too much information that really doesn’t matter. It teaches one to be unwilling to devote the time to become immersed in it. Jane Austin and David Pogue can still draw me in as deeply as ever.

  • SayB

    You said:

    I think that instead of designing services that help us create more and more micro content, we should be trying to create and promote services that help us to filter the best of the more intelligent, thoughtful fare.

    I mean really, the only reason behind all this is to earn more profits. The real question arrives, how to make these services profitable. That’s the challenging task. Don’t you think ?

  • Rose

    I agree with deemaxx and S_Eye. I don’t necessarily think our attention spans are getting shorter, we just have so much more information available to us at the touch of a few keys. With the thousands of sites and pages of information on every topic you can think of – who has time to fully read everything? You have to skim to find what is relevent and interesting to you.

  • dylanjones

    “Yes, the internet is making us stupid”

    WOW!! I can’t believe someone could even say that and mean it.

    It’s not the internet that is making us have a lower attention span, it’s the way we use it.
    The way we constantly look for entertainment, etc and if we don’t find it in the first 5 websites, we stop our search and go onto something else.

    It’s really a problem for the youngest generation, but the Internet is a WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE!! Every child who has access to the Internet can become a certified genius in their lifetime, but the problem, again, is we use the Internet for entertainment.

  • Vadim Vararu

    It’s sadly, but i can see myself described by your post…. :( :( :(

  • Dan

    When I have a project due, I can sit at my desk for over 8 hours straight coding… same with a good book or if I’m watching back to back dvds of a show I like. If the content is good, people will consume it until it runs out, if part of it gets boring, people lose interest.

  • thateagle

    I have the same problem as everyone.

    But sometimes I experience the exact inverse of this. I spend too much time reading in details some articles or stuff that I really should skip.

    For example I am a very busy web developper… yet I get those “phases” when I spend days reading about game design or philosophical stuff (while having deadlines nearby) and those info are totally useless to me in real life.

    So in the end I scan things I really need (like technical information, because I am in a hurry to get things done), and I spend too much time mastering things that are useless to me in practice. That’s quite a big problem now that I think of it…

  • Got me

    I read the first 3 paragraphs, agreed with pretty much everything you said and then instinctively scanned the rest and quickly moved to the bottom to start reading comments. I realized that this is my “normal” blog reading behavior and I probably only read 1/3 or less of everything I put in front of my eyes on a daily basis.

  • ADHD

    Well I was gonna read the article but then I saw a cool looking ad on the site and got distracted! :-)

    I think it all comes down to the human desire not to miss out on anything. Why stand still and soak in the moment when there are billions of other articles, videos, songs, blogs, etc. beckoning!

    Interesting in the movie I am Legend that when the clamoring media and busy-ness of life was silenced by the tragedy – it was then that people could hear the voice of God – the still small voice – I need that more

  • The reason is that content is so abundant now. Anyone can make it, and it’s our own power and undoing. Because anyone can and does put information on the web, the amount of bad content (people just trying to make money, people without certifications, people who don’t know how to make good content, crap) has increased so much. We skim because there’s so much crap out there, and there’s probably someone who can present it better / more succinctly.

  • vegas web design

    Sorry I just scanned through your article, but I definitely agree with everyone having short attention spans. Plus everyone is in a hurry.

  • sitehatchery

    Interesting that we will skip the points in an article and then proceed to read every user comment.

  • fleurdelisgrrl

    I need to go read a book as penance. Father forgive me, I skimmed an article about skimming. (sob-sob-sob)

  • Viperfish

    This is not a phenomenon brought on by the internet. I mean, who picks up the weekend paper and reads every word? Don’t we all flick the pages, briefly skimming the headlines until something catches our eye? The difference is that we might spend an hour reading the paper but we sit at our computer screens “flicking the pages” all day long.

  • John

    It is not just the internet that is doing this. Also, computers in general, the T.V., mobile phones, PDAs etc. Mobiles are my pet peeve. 10 or 20 years ago if you wanted to go out with some friends you would plan it a few days in advance and you would all have to turn up because you would have no way of letting them know if you didn’t want to. Now people organise things half an hour or an hour before hand. Even if you have previously said you will go somewhere it is acceptable to just message and say you aren’t coming.

  • Stevie D

    I enjoyed reading the full article and the 44 comments made so far :-)

  • Anne

    I’m updating and learning new skills to become a self-employed web designer/developer, and there is so so so much I need to learn, and keep abreast of. I’ve developed the habit of skim-reading through dozens and dozens of feeds, trying to assimilate as much relevant information as possible, as efficiently as possible, and bookmarking in-depth articles to return to when that topic might become more immediately relevant to me. I don’t have to waste time by refreshing my memory. With skim reading I try to get the gist of concepts and the buzz of new products, and build up a picture of the overall landscape of knowledge I need. By skim reading I can also get a large number of opinions on something, and note what’s being talked about a lot, and hence arrive at a more normative, wholistic picture of how the industry is than what I might get from a few more linear texts read at length. We are moving towards multiple narratives, and there is no one truth, or solution, that will give us the most success in life. We need to synthesise as much data as possible ourselves.

    Of course there are times when I need to go in-depth. But I see skim reading as akin to flying over a landscape, checking out the entire topology of the terrain, and then swooping down only when I see something tasty, to give it my full attention.

    Of course, as you’ve pointed out, this Hungry! Hungry! approach can lead to a jerky, driven, adrenaline-dependent type of consciousness, where we start to panic just slightly whenever we’re “wasting time” by lingering in one place. This is symptomatic of modern life, and unchecked, can have really negative consequences on a person’s mental or physical state. (I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for a few years after existing like this for years.) So personally, although I need to apply the short attention spans for getting ahead and assimilating as much knowledge as possible, I also find I have to consciously practise slowing down, and concentrating deeply. Meditation is a very good refresher for this, but so are lots of activities or anti-activities :) I suppose coding for me is a type of deep concentration, that can easily take up the major portion of a day in one go, but it’s also got my mind on high alert the whole time, trying to be as efficient as possible, so it’s not the best antidote for the Hungry! Hungry! Go go go! type thinking.

  • Anonymous

    …and the first thing I did was skim the article…