I see that engrossed look in her eyes and I can't tell if it's reverie or focus. I don't know if the lights are on and learning is under way, or if the lights are dimmed and vegetation is spawning. -- Jeff Weinstock, 2007
The epigraph above is reflective of the concern that many adults have that video technologies are harming children's attention spans. The dictionary definition for the term, "attention span," states that this refers to the amount of time that an individual or group of people is able to maintain focus, interest or concentration on something (Merriam-Webster, 2012). Parents and educators can readily testify that many young people have shorter attention spans than adults, but the reasons for this difference remain a source of controversy. Some researchers maintain that young people's attention spans and academic performance are being adversely affected by video technologies, including computers, video games and television. Other researchers, though, argue that poorly designed curricular offerings and a lack of focus on reading for young people are more salient with respect to any diminution of attention spans and suboptimal academic outcomes. To determine the facts in this issue, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning the effects of video technologies on children's attention spans, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
To listen to some critics, the country's young people are in trouble and the fault can be wholly attributed to video technologies. For instance, one educator emphasizes that, "A new scourge is sweeping the land. Kids have grown isolated from family members and no longer play outside. Chores go undone. Homework waits. Books go unread. Teachers note distracted students" (Stager, 2003, p. 41). Indeed, some educators even maintain that video technologies are eroding the ability of young people to think critically about the world and the issues that are important to them (Greengard, 2009). Other researchers have "blamed 'Sesame Street' and MTV for creating communication chaos -- an attention span of seconds instead of minutes" (Saltzman, 2009, p. 61).
This type of cyberphobia, though, does not reflect the reality of the situation when it comes to how video technologies are actually affecting young people. In this regard, Stager adds that, "Critics of school computer-use attempt to frighten the community with cautionary speculation about how kids will become antisocial, withdrawn, obese or, more importantly, unable to perform long division" (2003, p. 41). Likewise, an educator with a 6-year-old daughter reports that she is enormously concerned about the effects of video technology on his daughter's attention span: "A controlled photo shoot is about as much exposure to video games as I'm comfortable with her getting right now. As persuaded as I am by their educational potential, I'm wary of what they'll do to her attention span" (Weinstock, 2009, p. 6).
The click-and-point Millennial Generation is actually far better off than most observers might believe who rely on this type of alarmist hyperbole. In fact, Stager (2003) suggests that the blame for any diminution in critical thinking skills or academic outcomes among young people lies elsewhere. Educators are quick to point the finger at video technologies as the reason their young charges are not living up to their potential. For instance, Stager (2003) emphasizes that, "Conventional wisdom suggests that television and video games must be responsible for low literacy levels and short attention spans" (2003, p. 41). Unfortunately, the type of video content that is involved is frequently left out of the analysis and other potential causes for diminished attention spans are simply ignored. In this regard, Stager adds that, "The prophylactic effect of school reading methods and inauthentic curricula are rarely considered" (2003, p. 41).
Notwithstanding these assertions to the contrary, the research to date does suggest that even very young children have attention spans that can be affected by video technologies, depending on the type of content that is being viewed. For instance, a study by Van Den Broek, Bauer and Bourg (1999) determined that "Very young children bring to television viewing background information that influences their attention to the content of the story, and use cues such as voice, to direct attention to salient parts of the story" (p. 37). These researchers concluded that although young people's mental processes are still in a developmental phase, they are capable of actively selecting and organizing video content in order to understand it, but very young children do not use this video content after the presentation to reconstruct the story afterwards (Van Den Broek et al., 1999).
There have been some other studies that also indicate video content has an effect on attention spans among young learners, but these findings are not all that surprising because if young people are not able to understand video content, their level of interest and corresponding attention spans are naturally adversely affected. In this regard, a recent study by Pempek, Kirkorian, Richards, Anderson, Lund and Stevens (2010) used the television program, "The Teletubbies," to investigate attention spans in young people. In this study, normal and distorted versions of "The Telebubbies" were shown to a group of young people to gauge their respective attention spans. According to these researchers, "Earlier research established that preschool children pay less attention to television that is sequentially or linguistically incomprehensible" (Pempek et al., 2010, p. 1283).
While these findings may appear intuitive (after all, even young children want to understand what is being heard and seen), the attention span exists along a continuum that begins early on, typically around age 6 months and continues to be shaped as young people grow older. In this regard, Pempek and his associates report, "Only 24-month-olds, and to some extent 18-month-olds, distinguished between normal and distorted videos by looking for longer durations toward the normal stimuli" (Pempek et al., 2010, p. 1283). These findings clearly indicate that young people's attention spans are not necessarily affected by video technologies, but rather the type of content that is being delivered.
In fact, many educators have fully embraced video technologies as a way to improve young people's critical thinking skills and attention spans. In this regard, Wilson, Darden, Gibson and Meyler (2007) report that, "Technology has become a fascination to children in the 21st Century. Once we admitted our culture has changed and televisions, computers, iPods and video games have taken over the lives of many youth, we viewed it as our responsibility not to fight it, but to use it to help achieve our goals" (p. 12). Therefore, video technologies can promote critical thinking and increased attention spans if certain environmental factors are taken into account. For example, young learners who are provided with larger video screens with higher resolutions that enhance the viewing experience have been shown to demonstrate increased attention spans (Baudisch, DeCarlo, Duchowski & Geisler, 2003).
Likewise, a study by Dye, Green and Bavalier (2009) found that video games that feature more action more actively engage young players, thereby allowing them to allocate their attention spans across both space and time. According to Dye and his associates, "The data suggest that action video game players of all ages have enhanced attentional skills that allow them to make faster correct responses to targets, and leaves additional processing resources that spill over to process distractors flanking the targets" (p. 1780). In addition, even some early video games were specifically designed to become more difficult and challenging if the player's attention span waned, thereby helping young people remain focused on the task at hand (Pope & Bogart, 1999).
Despite arguments to the contrary, the research showed that young people's attention spans are not necessarily being harmed because of video technologies, but rather because of the type of content that…