It’s no secret that, in this current age of rapid technological progress, the attention spans of young people are taking a hit. We check our phones every five minutes, prefer our news in the form of 140-characters and never dare to venture past the second page of a Google search. We’ve grown used to finding very specific pieces of information in a short amount of time. Unlike previous generations, few of us have had to sift through old books in a library for a research project or can remember the last time we read a book cover-to-cover.
With new and exciting job prospects and online academic resources, college students in particular are most aware of the many benefits that technology has brought them. But the convenience and access to knowledge made possible by our gadgets have come with an unexpected cost: our declining ability to focus on a single task for a prolonged period of time. I must admit, maybe our parents were onto something whenever they told us about their time in school, free of the technological distractions we’re faced with today. Shorter attention spans, induced by our technological addictions, can actually harm our long-term well-being by compromising the liberal arts education that we’re all at Brown to receive.
A new study from Microsoft warns that the average human today boasts the attention span of a goldfish: a crisp eight seconds. Those multiple open tabs have finally caught up to us, and we’re now finding it difficult to filter out unnecessary distractions and remain focused on the task at hand. We want everything right here and right now, but things outside of the technological realm — like our educations — don’t work that way. A quick glimpse around a lecture hall will bring you face-to-face with numerous Facebook pages and Buzzfeed articles as opposed to the lecture notes professors are hoping their students are typing. Distraction during a lecture is inevitable, and checking on one of your open tabs mid-lecture can seem harmless. But on a practical level, those multiple tabs are evidence that our ever-shrinking attention spans can seriously hurt our ability to absorb information from non-digital sources, from something as elementary as a regular lecture. That’s a considerable waste of our Ivy League education — and our minds.
With their short attention spans, students accustomed to getting their answers through a Google search in between lecture slides are also making it harder for themselves to be patient with their academic challenges. What we dismissively label as “distractions” are signals of a deteriorating ability to do the independent thinking expected of serious students and scholars. Indeed, our shorter attention spans are harming our potential to fully achieve the goal of a liberal arts education: sustained engagement with material that may initially be complicated and hard to understand. According to some educators, our over-reliance on quick solutions and quick transitions between tabs is hampering our ability to stick with compelling material long enough to become inspired and develop original ideas. At Brown, we have some of the world’s foremost intellectual minds and numerous academic resources within our reach. It would simply be a pity to let ourselves lose our creativity and the true power of our liberal arts education to the convenience of rote internet searches.
Facing an increasing number of computer screens in their classrooms, teachers and professors across the world often feel compelled to integrate high-tech tools into their lesson plans. This accomodation of young people’s technological habits may have an adverse effect on their ability to engage with the material. Many teachers who employ digital tools in the classroom note that the “Wikipedia Problem” — students prefer to search for an answer online instead of deriving it themselves — is becoming more and more prevalent in their schools as the proliferation of technology continues. The digitization of the classroom may be playing a role in conditioning students to expect quick solutions for their problems instead of disciplining them to engage with new and creative ideas.
I don’t know what the answer to our shrinking attention spans is, and it isn’t clear how we can best salvage our liberal arts education in an increasingly tech-driven world. But I know that throwing more media into a classroom isn’t going to solve the problem. Perhaps we ought to relearn the values instilled in previous generations and approach the latest technological fads with a dose of skepticism. At college, we shouldn’t be allowed or encouraged to retreat to the safety of our devices. Rather we should be learning how to remain tenacious and committed in the face of academic difficulties.
Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.