This article is 3 years old

Teenage Attention Spans: Where Did They Go?


The ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time is deteriorating amongst teens, and this is undeniably connected to the culture of endlessly swiping through Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Social media has continued to wreak havoc on teenagers’ mental health, behavior, addictions, and increasingly, their attention span. Watching movies requires focusing on the same storyline for more than thirty minutes, which makes going to the theaters, or even sitting down to watch a long film, a nearly impossible task for young social media users. 

With overwhelming amounts of social media content having become streamable through different platforms, many people, but specifically teenagers, might start to feel the need to see and consume as much of this as possible. This results in people who tend to spend a minimal amount of time on every piece of information they consume. For teens, the ever-changing nature of scrolling and skimming can keep them hooked for hours, which scientists say decreases attention spans.

Attention spans are task-dependent, which means that there isn’t a universal time interval in which teens can focus. Certain teens can devote their attention to a specific task for hours, such as scrolling through feeds or playing video games, while simultaneously being unable to focus on a film or homework assignment for more than twenty minutes. With this comes the phenomenon of being unable to sit through a movie but easily breezing through ten seasons of a show.

Social media companies like TikTok have ruined the appeal of longer, complex movies and even infiltrated the experience of watching TV for teenagers. TikTok inspired “scrolling culture” with its fifteen to sixty second videos, and the number of available TikToks to watch is endless. These videos, whether they are dances, comedic shorts, or simply someone talking on a screen, have heavily impaired teens’ ability to focus on media that demands more attention. While episodic shows are still popular among teens, many choose to simultaneously use their phones during episodes of thirty-minute entertainment. Oftentimes, teenagers will choose shows that hastily engross viewers, leaving little to no room for gradual plots. For instance, many teens can watch sixteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, nine seasons of The Office, fifteen seasons of Criminal Minds, or seven seasons of New Girl. These shows tend to be the preferred alternative to movies because teenagers can simultaneously scroll through their phones while barely paying attention to the action on the screen. The plot can vary in each episode, but the characters and the overarching theme will stay consistent, allowing for minimal attention to be necessary. When shows have plot twists, new characters, and action sequences, these factors can attest to the short attention span that impacts teenagers’ ability to enjoy movies. When a plot is gradual, they are overwhelmed by boredom, which leaves room for the mind to wander back to social media. 

High-action movies such as The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent have steadily increased in popularity among teens. These movies have a similar appeal to short episodic shows: they have fast-paced plots and don’t contain much build-up — the perfect movies for phone-absorbed teens. 

On the other hand, what happened to the documentaries, dramas, and even comedic films that require attention to character development, complex, slow build-up plot lines, and puzzles? Longer films, which require deeper and more critical thinking, have started to slowly drop off the face of our television screens. These aspects require complete engagement and sitting through a slower-paced experience, and simultaneously scrolling while watching these movies is a futile task.

Undoubtedly, as social media platforms evolve and keep teens hooked with content, young people will continue to swipe mindlessly on their phones instead of watching movies. While social media can be a form of connection between teens, it can also affect their ability to consume other media. Relearning how to immerse themselves in longer forms of entertainment, as well as detaching from social media, is crucial for teens to achieve the ability to sit through a movie unbothered.