Millennials, Technology, and Short Attention Spans

Obviously, the way in which culture and ideas are presented have changed in recent decades.  One often hears that we are in a world of short attention spans.  Thus, people don’t read books anymore.  They read short pieces on the internet, like blogs.  People don’t listen to albums any more, they download songs instead.  This short attention span is also thought to be reflected in the use of cell phones, with people constantly multi-tasking and not being able to focus on one matter at a time.  All of this is sometimes thought to be a reflection on the undisciplined habits of mind of the younger generation.

But that’s not my view.  To begin with, it seems clear to me that the causation runs in the opposite direction.  It is not the short attention span or undisciplined minds of the young that is causing this.  Instead, it is the technology that promotes these behaviors that is the primary cause. Part of the proof for this is that older people, who presumably had more disciplined minds back in the day, often behave in much the same way as the younger people when using this new technology.

Another problem with a short attention span being the cause of this behavior comes from the world of modern TV shows, especially of the pay TV or cable variety.  The old style TV shows could be watched in any order.  They were designed that way.  One could watch All In The Family or ER in pretty much any order.  There was a reason for this: in a world with either no or limited VCRs, people could not be expected to catch every TV show in order.

Today, however, one needs to watch many of the best shows – Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad – in the correct order. They cannot be sampled like songs or blogs.  And they can realistically be watched in order, since they are available on DVRs, DVDs, and streaming services.  So what does this tell us?

First, it indicates that the so called undisciplined younger minds are able to follow a rule when there is a reason to do so.  Second, it confirms that the reason for the change in reading and viewing habits is technology.

In fact, the viewing of these TV shows actually suggests the opposite of a short attention span.  Many people – not me, I actually have a short attention span – binge watch these shows, viewing them one after another after another.  Once again, a practice that is made possible by the technology.

Reader Discussion

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on August 10, 2016 at 12:12:12 pm

I wonder if it is more a need that technology has allowed to be satisfied a want that people have always had. People want to learn things as quickly as possible so they can move on and do other things. The technology of today allows people to learn information they are seeking much faster, as so the requirements for those seeking to provide learning today is much higher. Its like when a new product comes on the market and no one wants the old product because it doesnt have the features of the new product. The new product (modern blogs. faster ways of getting the same kind of information) are superior products compared to the old products for most people. It only has to be superior in one dimension (in this case speed) for people to potentially want that product more, until there is a new product that is superior in some other dimension.

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Devin Watkins
on August 10, 2016 at 12:26:12 pm


I think you are right in this. Of course, one should not underestimate the "lemming" effect on both technology and behavior. What else explains folks lining up outside an Apple store for many hours just to be one of the first to have "what everyone else will soon have."

Then again, why listen to me? I still have a 12 year old flip phone and more resemble Ben Franklin's *ephemera.*

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.