Does Social Media Reduce Students’ Attention Span?

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As social media apps with short-form content (such as TikTok and Instagram) become more popular, some students find that their attention span is shortening. World History teacher Austin Hunt said, “These apps can cause our brain to concentrate more on things that need less of an attention span, such as short bursts of information on TikTok. This makes classes very difficult to sit through as information is given over a longer time period, not just three to four seconds.” 

Freshman Nicklas Klemmer added, “Being on social media has significantly had negative impacts on my attention span. I notice myself usually reaching for my phone when I should be on task during class. Whenever I feel a notification come from my pocket, I always expect it to be something I need to look at right away. This makes it really difficult to continue focusing in class as I am thinking about the notification if I am not able to check it.”

There is no proof that social media decreases users’ patience. However, some believe that, in the short term, social media can make it harder for students to concentrate in classes because many classes or books don’t give the instant gratification that phones do. These popular social media apps provide our brains with dopamine that is usually only released by rewards and motivation. This is particularly important for teens, as, according to the Pew Research Center, 90% of teens use social media for more than four hours a day. 

Hunt added, “I think that phones are fantastic in many ways, but can also be a huge distraction. I think it’s important for people of all ages to think about the advantages that come with being resilient and having self-control when it comes to being on your phone. It’s so easy to just mindlessly pull it out all the time and get very distracted. I make my students use the phone pockets because it’s like, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’” 

Even though many teachers encourage putting phones in phone pockets, this policy might not be very helpful if they relax their policy and students can grab their phones. A 2017 study found that proximity to phones, even while silenced and turned off, decreased college undergraduates’ cognitive capacity. In particular, students’ cognitive capacity was highest when their phone was in another room, followed by when it was in their pocket or backpack, and finally when it was on their desk. Junior Isabella Giurlani said, “If my phone is not required to be in the phone pocket, then it is usually near me, which causes me to become distracted much easier. Once I am on my phone, I usually end up never completing my work during class.” Most teachers encourage putting phones in phone pockets, which could decrease distractions by ensuring that phones are not on desks. 

Biology teacher Patrick Roisen said, “The phones themselves aren’t necessarily good or bad—it’s how they’re being used. After having taught for thirty years, I’ve seen that kids have a harder time focusing than similar students 20+ years ago. Some students have a night craving to have music playing all the time, and if they don’t have something to immediately occupy their time they’ll pull out their phone. There’ve been some studies about this that suggest it’s a big problem since that kind of ‘downtime’ is actually useful for developing creativity as your mind drifts as well as processing emotions.”

Sophomore Sabina Ortiz said, “When I have my phone in class I am very tempted to use it in order to distract myself from classwork. Many times, to try and focus on myself, I listen to music, but then become even more preoccupied by looking at my screen. To an extent, I believe phone pockets do help, but oftentimes I feel better and less distracted about having my phone with me, as it is like a comfort item.” Roisen added, “In studies of people who are really good at something, there’s what’s called a ‘flow state,’ where the person doing the task becomes super-focused and incredibly efficient, etc. Phone use makes it harder to get into a flow state, and, even if they can get into a flow, a text or app notification can quickly knock them back out.”

The amount of time everyone, but especially youth, spends on their phones can decrease their capacity to focus both in and out of class and causes students to try to do too many things at once.

“Students can still use phones positively—they just need to decide what they want out of their phone use and be careful not to be manipulated. I’ve known students that made the conscious choice to stop using social media and, without exception, they report feeling better, less emotional drama, and found themselves doing things, like reading books for pleasure, that they hadn’t done for years,” Roisen said.

Natalie Shannon was a sophomore and in her first year in Journalism writing for the M-A Chronicle. She enjoyed writing about events and fun activities happening around school. In her free time, Natalie liked hanging out with her friends.

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