Reddit and Reels: Tech has made teens like me unable to focus for longer than 15 seconds

March 16, 2023 — by Sam Bai
Graphic by Eric Shi
A student addicted to their phone.
The skyrocketing popularity of electronic devices and social media has led the average person’s attention span to decrease year by year.

Lying on the right side of my bed, I hold my bright phone a foot in front of my face, scrolling through Reddit or Instagram reels because I haven’t devolved to the point of downloading TikTok — I refuse to believe I’ve downgraded to using the most notoriously addictive app in the world, even if I’m doing the exact same rabbit-hole scrolling on other, less notorious apps. 

According to my parents, I should have been asleep four hours ago at 10 p.m., but due to my short attention span, I had trouble completing my homework as I felt the need to take constant breaks — whether that was snacking, playing video games or checking Discord. 

If I encounter any video over 30 seconds, my eyelids start to droop and I scroll to the next video to keep myself awake. 

I think to myself, Just one more reel and I’ll go to sleep. 

Thirty minutes later, I’m telling myself the same thing, phone in hand, continuing to scroll.

As technology becomes more ingrained into everyday life, it seems our concentration levels and attention spans have been decreasing year by year. While many joke about having the nine second attention span of a goldfish, they might be surprised to learn that this is no joke — the average person’s attention span is even shorter, at only eight seconds

Since the onset of the pandemic, the time we spend in front of  screens has mushroomed, with an average person clocking in over seven hours daily. As a result, we find it difficult to focus in most settings due to becoming overly accustomed to being stationary for prolonged periods of time with our eyes glued to one electronic device.

As my attention span has decreased, I have found it increasingly difficult to complete mundane tasks in one sitting. Back when in elementary school, before I had my own laptop or phone, I eagerly read multiple books a week. Now, I read only about one book a month, and most are assigned in English class rather than voluntary reading. 

AP U.S. History homework, which typically only consists of around 12 or so textbook pages, takes me over an hour to complete. I often catch myself reading mindlessly, skimming words without actively comprehending their meaning, then needing to go back and reread multiple paragraphs. It’s scary that my brain can clock into video-watching mode so easily as I do tasks like homework. 

When reading online comics, for example, I have stopped reading every single word. Instead, I enable auto-scrolling on my mouse and skim through the chapters, relying mostly on images instead of words. How else would I be able to read hundreds of chapters in a single night and keep up with all the new series coming out? 

My high social media usage and constant engagement with photos and videos have made me into a visual learner. Why read a history textbook when I can watch a 10-minute video on YouTube to gain the same knowledge in a fraction of the time? I now comprehend images significantly better than text because images take a much shorter time to comprehend; my brain is trained to find the shortest way to grasp information.

My increasingly short attention span has also started to impair my memory retention, which has hindered my test-taking abilities. After reading a lengthy word problem that might contain a total of three sentences (very long word problem indeed), I now need to reread the problem multiple times to remember what it is even asking.

Another reason for the decreasing attention spans of teens is the extra stress in their lives. With so many tasks to complete — from hefty amounts of homework to extracurriculars to college applications — they often find themselves either multi-tasking or rushing to accomplish as many things as possible. The increasing strain of extracurriculars forces one to spend less time on each activity while still striving to maintain the same quality as before. 

Instead of trying to combat the decreasing attention span, a student could use it to their benefit. They could push themself to become more productive within those short time frames. Or, they could switch to another activity that will cleanse their mind instead of one that will lead to a rabbit hole of procrastination; for many people, once they pick up their phone, it’ll take hours to put down. The next time Minecraft’s newest snapshot update threatens to distract me, it’s probably far smarter to stand up and take a walk. 

One successful change I made recently was moving my workstation to face the window instead of a plain slab of wall. This way, when I become exhausted and cannot do another math problem to save my life, I can tilt my head up to look at the greenery outside, and not at my phone. My imagination and mindful appreciation of nature are healthier rest activities than engaging in entertainment-based screen time. 

As technology becomes more and more ingrained in everyday life, attention spans have become the shortest they’ve ever been. Students have a harder time focusing during in-class lectures and when doing homework. They end up sleeping later at night, making up for the lost sleep in class when they should be focusing on lectures instead. Without an easy way to revert back to the attention span we used to have, we need to learn to adapt and find ways to work effectively with a shorter attention span.

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