“What do you think, are you dumber than your parents were in college?” the professor asked. We all squirmed uncomfortably, but no one answered. Perhaps our silence was not because of our lack of opinion, but more because we sat in a circle with the university president and several important faculty members. We were discussing critiques of higher education and the idea that college students nowadays don’t work as hard as they once did to receive good grades.
The discussion changed direction, but the question lingered in my mind. In a lot of ways I think it is hard to compare our college experience with that of our parents’ generation.
My mom grew up in a house with one TV. She didn’t have a computer or a cell phone or an ipod. She obviously didn’t have youtube or facebook or tumblr or twitter. On the other hand, most people my age grew up in a house with a TV in almost every room. From an early age we had access to hundreds of channels of cable television, millions of internet sites, social media, smartphones, mp3 players, etc. It’s inconceivable to go to college without owning at least a personal laptop, if not also a cell phone, ipod, and digital camera.
So yeah, I would say we’ve had a pretty significant cultural shift from how things were even just 30 years ago.
We’re not dumber, we’re just more ADHD.*
My band teacher in high school turned on the classroom TV. “Count the seconds until the camera changes angles,” he instructed. We counted out loud as a group. The longest period from the same angle was about 15 seconds. His point was clear before he even said it: we have ridiculously short attention spans. If the camera doesn’t continuously change views we get bored and change the channel.
People have always liked to be entertained. That’s why things like plays, concerts and sporting events have existed for such a long time. But with each new outlet for entertainment (TV, computer, ipod, smartphone), comes a more instant and easy gratification of our desire for entertainment. We no longer have to do any work to be entertained, we can just turn on the tv, or get online. We barely even have to think anymore.
With so many different things vying for our attention, we’re on entertainment overload.
So when we have to actually read something, or listen to a lecture, we complain that it’s boring. We’re not used to having to concentrate, we can barely even finish a youtube video if it’s longer than five minutes.
I’m worried about this. I see it in myself. I’m a journalism major and I often have a hard time reading a whole newspaper article if it’s longer than a few paragraphs. I’m afraid that our attention spans will get so short that no one will bother reading or figuring out things for themselves, they’ll just believe what other people tell them because it’s easier that way, they don’t have to do any work or concentrate or think. I’m afraid that this is already becoming a reality. We have social networking sites like facebook and blogs so we can all speak our minds, but are we saying anything important or original? and if we are will anybody listen?
*By the way, just to make sure I was using the correct term I looked up ADHD. According to the National Library of Medicine “ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination.” Geez, does that describe every person in modern America, or what?