Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Some say television is more to blame than Web for short attention spans

    After the publication of Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic and Motoko Rich's "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" in The New York Times, Americans are beginning to question whether the Web is harming their ability to stay focused in today's digital world.
    Many specialists contend that switching from one Internet program to another over prolonged time periods weakens a user's ability to become immersed in activities that require greater time and attention, such as reading.
    "It makes it harder even when we're offline to read books, as skimming takes over and displaces our modes of reading," Carr wrote in his Atlantic article. "The way we gather information is by jumping around, and that's governed not only by Google, but by the whole economic structure of the Internet."
    But some may argue that other factors — like the media-focused nature of today's culture and television — are to blame for our nation's inability to focus.
    Andrew Call, a market researcher at Zoom Marketing, a California-based consulting firm for technology product and services companies, says that excessive media consumption may injure society in the long run.
    "I personally think our society's nature to simplify and shorten the processing of information has been of detriment to our attention spans," he said. "A lot of times, getting information and facts in such a quick manner causes us to miss all of the nuanced subtleties."
    But this inability to process information for an extended time period may not be so much a result of the Internet, but rather of television programs from the 1990s, Call said.
    "Such [a] phenomenon is often referred to as part of the ‘MTV' generation: since MTV was one of the first networks to pick up on this trend [of short cuts and choppy, unfocused material]," Call said.
    "But a lot of times, I think the worst case of this kind of behavior is with the news," he continued. "These days, people have to be constantly entertained."
    Take Fox News, for example. They've got runners on the bottom of the screen, graphics thrown at you every two seconds, all in addition to their regularly programmed news."
    In fact, some believe that the structure of modern television may be more to blame for higher rates of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in recent years than the Internet.
    "Some people have hypothesized that an overexposure to television will cause ADHD-like tendencies among audiences," said John Howe, co-founder of the Newton-based Adult ADHD Anonymous Support Group said. "In some ways, I suspect there's truth to that thesis, because the very short visual splices found in television programming can increase a person's tendency towards ADHD."
    But the Internet may not have the same effect as television, Howe said. In fact, he suggests that the Web may be of significant benefit to users who do exhibit ADHD tendencies.
    "The Internet supports an ADHD way of thinking very nicely, because with the Internet, the user is able to access it at his or her own rate," Howe said. "When a person with ADHD watches television, however, their ability to process information is controlled by the speed of the editing.
    "Sometimes a hypnotic effect can arise from such quick pacing," he continued. "Television and movies 15 years ago had much longer sequencing and slower editing that helped to get the attention mechanism used to absorbing longer material. In real life, you don't have jump cuts forced upon you, framing your nervous system for a pacing like that."
    In his work with people afflicted with ADHD over the past 13 years, Howe said that he has rarely seen a single case in which a person's ADHD tendencies were exacerbated by Internet use.
    "I've found that few folks with ADHD have reported detrimental effects on their attention spans from Internet use," he said. "In fact, a lot of times the Web can be a great resource for us because it allows us to chase information at our own rate."