QUICK LOOK: Dangers of Students’ Short Attention Spans | LifeZette

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Dangers of Students Short Attention Spans | LifeZette.

by Deirdre Reilly

In the above article Deirdre Reilly—pulling from a recent report that appeared in The Telegraph—observes: “The age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span that even a goldfish can hold a thought in its mind longer than a human can….” A bit further along we hear Reilly tell us that

There is no doubt that humans in general have less ability to focus and pay attention. A recent study has shown that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 — about the time the technology revolution began — to a current eight seconds. (A goldfish, as mentioned above, can reportedly hold a thought for nine seconds.)

Listen in as Reilly talks about new classroom realities:

Classrooms today contain a mix of distracted kids — some who simply cannot pay attention due to an addiction to technology, and some who have ADD or ADHD and join the class on a structured IEP (Individualized Education Plan).

The first national survey of children diagnosed with ADHD, released in 2015 by the Journal of Pediatrics, found that nearly half of children in preschool were on medication for the condition. (Preschool, yes.)

Yeow! When I read the statistic that HALF (yes I’m yelling) HALF of preschoolers are on behavioral medications, I was stunned. These are kids who are three and four years old on powerful behavioral drugs. “Where’s the public outrage?” I thought to myself. But then I heard a voice coming from my other shoulder: “So what … what’s the big deal if kids don’t have attention spans longer than a goldfish?” Allow me to take a stab at answering this “devil’s advocate” question.

I just finished reading a book I mentioned recently: Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs by neurologists Barbara Sahakian and Jamie LaBuzette (2013). Sahakian and LaBuzette point out that attention span is part and parcel of making good decisions. Sahakian and LaBuzette also suggest that attention span may well be one of the most important EF or executive function skills, which include planning, mental time travel, empathy, appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, delaying gratification, and general self-control. So, it would seem that declining attention spans tends to indicate a decline in overall EF functioning. Sahakian and LaBuzette make it abundantly clear that it would be very difficult to navigate life without an ability to make good and sound decisions, especially decisions concerning one’s future. [1]

Hopefully in a future post I’ll have more to say about Bad Moves. For now I’ll leave you with this thought: Sahakian and LaBuzette suggest that it may not be such a bad idea to use Smart Drugs to enhance attention span and, in turn, enhance decision making. I have some serious reservations here. Why? Well, at times like this I tend to go back to an observation that ADHD expert Russell Barkley makes in his book Executive Functions: Sure, behavioral drugs can improve attention in the short term, but they do not improve Executive Functioning in the long term. Barkley views behavioral drugs as being the same as casts and crutches. Sure, a person who has broken a bone needs such aids as casts and crutches. These aids promote healing so that once healed, they are no longer needed. What Barkley points out is that the casts and crutches of behavioral drugs do not promote healing. As a result, a person is condemned to a life of casts and crutches. I’ll leave you with this question: “Why are we as a society willing to condemn half of all preschoolers to a life of casts and crutches?”

Have a safe and fun Memorial Day weekend! I’ll be back after the break.


[1] In his book The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control, Walter Mischel tells us that the ability to delay gratification and engage in self-control is critical for life success. Delaying gratification and self-control play roles in such things as college success, career success, marriage and family success, and retirement planning success.