The Effects of Social Media on Attention Span

By Arielle Berma, Madeline Gutierrez, Daniel Kim, and Shelby Martin

As one of the most significant aspects of our current culture, social media usage has taken the world by storm. Social media has given us a way to make direct and genuine connections with our interests and other people in any given environment. With the advancements of technology, it has also become easier to use daily, eventually turning into an encaptivating lifestyle that is hard to escape for most of us.

Dr. Cynthia M. King

With that, the focus of this study will be on the effects of social media on one’s attention span. We had the privilege to interview and discuss this topic with Dr. Cynthia King in the interest of gaining more understanding and perspective from someone familiar with the use of media and its effects on those it spans out to.

Dr. King became a professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, after earning her Ph. D. in Mass Communication at the University of Alabama. With experience in quantitative research emphasizing the trends and effects of entertainment and commercial media, she shared her knowledge of strategies that gain audience engagement and the behavior resulting from this exposure. Social Media has exponentially grown through different platforms and the number of users that’s led our interviewee to obtain plenty of personal experience in this field of research.

Culture Change due to Social Media

Social Media has normalized its way into becoming a critical part of everyday life. People never think twice when checking their mobile devices to scroll through social media or media in general. Dr. King reminded us that there are many benefits to the continuous developments in social media. The number of resources and media outlets wasn’t as vast as today; it was probably appropriate to say it was limited. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, zoom, etc., didn’t exist to help individuals stay connected and build relationships from the comforts of their own homes. Equally important to mention, there are also adverse effects to social media use.

Group of friends in the street with smartphones. Forbes.

When speaking with Dr. King, we looked over the plausible measurements of social media consumption. She explained that over many experiments, there is a clear differentiation in how long people think they spend on social media versus the actual time spent on the platforms. Media has increased distractibility levels, which has directly affected a person’s attention span and focus without them realizing how much of their time is being consumed. With the ability to move from platform to platform, society has developed the mentality that social media content is disposable. After a short amount of time, they can move on to the next. Users’ practice and behavior closely relate to a decrease in their attention and the effortless process of moving onto something new.

Our interviewee claimed she sees this repeated engagement pattern where social media and other media content cause split concentration due to the overload of information being supplied. Although this can be seen in all age groups, individuals that grew up without the same access to technology have different habits than the youth. It is seen in the platform Facebook, one of the first social media platforms to be produced, with a larger demographic of older users compared to other outlets. This is a program this age group is familiar and comfortable with; however, the trend continues onto another platform that the next generation may adopt with more detrimental consequences. As the older age group sticks with one platform, thousands are being offered to the younger generation pulling their attention in different directions across the years of development. As Dr. King stated to us, there are noticeable distinctions between today’s youth compared to generations before, where we see a seven-year-old starting to have a shorter attention span closely related to a child two years younger.

Impact of Heavy Media Use in Quarantine

Increased use in social media, before and during quarantine. Nature Electronics.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our habits changed in regards to how we use social media. Even with her extensive background in media effects and research, Dr. King’s personal experience alone has allowed her better to understand social media’s impact on attention span. When students were able to return to in-person classes, she began expanding observations about the switch. In this sense, she has had the advantage of taking her own perspective through real-life examples in the professional setting.

During isolation, many people turned to social media for entertainment and when working and going to school remotely, being at home offered many distractions, especially social media. When learning via Zoom, it was common for college students to attempt to multitask, as they were not physically in a classroom. Many were doing tasks like eating, scrolling through social media, or getting ready for the day, with their lectures simply playing in the background. Because they could turn their cameras off, students could do what they wanted. According to our interviewee, people believe they could multitask during their online classes, but it was constantly proven they couldn’t. Instead, it became harder for them to pay attention.

When we spoke to Dr. King, she discussed the dual-screening effect, a term for using multiple devices at once, such as scrolling through social media while a Zoom lecture plays in the background. She has noticed that students do not know how to act in a regular class, forgetting that they are in a live classroom and behaving as they would at home. A variety of times she would see people eating, scroll through their phones, and do homework for other classes. Additionally, she found that students have a more difficult time focusing on the lectures in class. Increased media use during remote learning has also led students to a higher expectation to be entertained when entering the physical classroom. With multiple distractions to compete with, the material became more engaging, relatable, and anecdotal enough to catch attention.

Behavior and Attention Span From Social Media Use

In our conversations, Dr. King explained that she is not necessarily confident that social media use itself is what decreases attention span but habit is what may be the driving factor behind this change in behavior. Students are used to shorter clips and videos from social media. They have developed the habit of using social media during class while learning remotely and are accustomed to quick and instant access to information on these platforms.

Comparing Attention Span and Engagement. MadMe.

When translated into a physical classroom setting, it makes sense that these habits influence the way students absorb information and affect their expectations. Now, students cannot sit through a full hour and a half lecture and fully pay attention. From her own experience, Dr. King has found that she can only hold students’ focus for about 5-10 minutes at a time before they become distracted by their phones and that they learn better in 5-10 minute bytes. As a result, she has had to modify her lectures and ensure that she has enough pauses in between to keep her students engaged. While social media itself does not directly decrease attention span, habitual use of social media while attempting to multitask does. It simultaneously contributes to an increased need for stimulation and decreased ability to absorb lots of information at once.

Our interview with Dr. King, through a series of questions.

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