We’ve heard it again and again: Gen Z can’t focus. They’ve even been compared to goldfish. They have a reported eight-second attention span, compared to the 12-second attention span that millennials allegedly possess. But what do these numbers actually mean? Of course, this is an oversimplification. Gen Z can still enjoy books and feature length films just like anyone else. Plus, attention is task-dependent. Your ability to focus on an essay or maths equations is not necessarily the same as your ability to focus on a video. But we are at risk of having even shorter attention spans in the future.
There is a shift happening. In order to process all of the daily input of the information age, all of our brains have adapted – not just Gen Z. The younger generation just happens to have lived their formative years during this inundation, so the differences are more pronounced. That’s why apps like TikTok have gained massive popularity. Short-form content is drawing massive amounts of engagement. So, what consequences might this have down the line?
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Andy Warhol once said that, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. This says more about the media itself than it does about celebrities. While we’re not quite at the 15-minute mark, in some respects this is getting closer to being true. It has been well established that most people get their news from social media now, where trending topics are lasting for shorter and shorter time frames. The average global Twitter trend went from 17.5 hours in 2013 to 11.9 hours in 2016. Now, it’s common for trends to live and die within an hour. It’s possible that we will see these cycles shorten even further. As a result, it may be no surprise if we have short attention spans in the future.
Abbreviation and summarization of longer texts has become common practice online. AP now encourages journalists to write articles of 300-500 words. Longer form content such as lengthier emails must now be released with the knowledge that they are more likely to be skimmed than read thoroughly. However, that doesn’t mean that longer texts will disappear altogether. They may simply need to be specialised and adapted depending on their audiences.
Interactivity is one way to hold attention for longer periods of time. By involving the audience as a ‘prosumer’ – one who is shaping the content they consume – they are more likely to hold a continued interest. Technology has already begun to support ventures such as a movie you can control with your mind. With some refinement, this technology could become more mainstream. Even in smaller ways, interactivity has already started to replace passivity in our daily lives, from video games to the algorithms we interact with.
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