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If you’re like me, you worry a lot about your students’ ability to focus and sustain attention. Serious research, reading and writing all require students to set aside distractions and concentrate.

There is significant evidence suggesting that students today do indeed struggle with focus and attention. The rise of digital technology, particularly smartphones, social media and instant messaging, has created an environment ripe for distractions. Studies have shown that the average attention span has decreased over the years, partly due to the constant bombardment of information and notifications that students experience daily.

A Microsoft study found that the average human attention span is dwindling, dropping from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight in 2013, less than the average attention span of a goldfish (nine seconds). Another set of studies found that in 2004, the average attention span on any screen was two and a half minutes on average, which fell to 75 seconds in 2012 and is now down to 47 seconds.

The increased accessibility of information through search engines and AI-driven tools has certainly contributed to a reduction in the time students spend on traditional study methods. I, perhaps like you, have found that AI tools serve as replacements, not aids, for critical thinking and deep learning.

While useful, these tools can encourage a surface-level approach to learning, where students rely on quick answers rather than engaging deeply with the material. The convenience of these technologies compromises the depth and quality of the students’ academic work.

The consequences of reduced focus and less time devoted to studies are significant. Deep learning, which involves critical thinking, analysis and synthesis of information, requires sustained attention and effort. When students are constantly distracted or rely too heavily on quick information sources, they miss out on the cognitive processes that lead to deeper understanding and retention of knowledge. This can result in poorer academic performance and a weaker grasp of essential skills necessary for professional and personal growth.


Adults have a tendency to fixate on problems among children and youth that are just as prevalent among themselves. There’s also a tendency to medicalize, psychologize or pathologize problems and fail to see that these problems have multiple social and cultural as well as technological causes. That appears to be the case with today’s concern about shrinking attention spans and attention deficits.

The increase in ADHD diagnoses and the corresponding rise in medication use, such as stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, suggest a trend towards pathologizing behaviors that may be within the normal range of childhood activity. Critics argue that behaviors often deemed symptomatic of ADHD might instead be responses to the pressures and demands of contemporary life, both for children and adults.

Also, the young face significant educational pressures, with high expectations for academic performance from an early age. Standardized testing and a highly structured school environment can exacerbate issues of inattention and hyperactivity. These pressures reflect broader societal values that prioritize productivity and success, often at the expense of mental health.

The proliferation of digital technology has fundamentally changed how both the young and the old interact with information and each other. The constant barrage of stimuli from smartphones, tablets and computers can fragment attention spans and make sustained focus more challenging. This phenomenon affects both children and adults, yet it is often children who are singled out for their inability to concentrate.

Changes in family dynamics have apparently contributed to attention issues. Increased screen time has helped reduce face-to-face interaction within families, while parents’ struggles with work-life balance and stress have a significant impact their children’s behavior and development.


Of course, much of the blame for students’ attention deficits has been attributed to technology—to social media, the internet, smartphones, apps and streaming music and video. To a historian, all this sounds eerily familiar. After all, every new technology—including the movies, radio and television—has been accused of harming the young.

But monocausal explanations are almost invariably incomplete. In his important 2017 study, The Ecology of Attention, Yves Citton, a professor of literature and media at the Université Paris, describes a complex ecosystem in which many different forces, from advertising and literature to search engines and performance art, influence our ability to pay attention in the digital age. Modern marketing strategies, designed to capture and hold consumer attention, have played a particularly important role in increasing levels of distractibility.

The challenge of sustaining attention in today’s distraction-filled world is not limited to students. With more and more information available every day, all information providers, including professors, face a challenge in getting messages through the overload.

As Richard J. Spiegel and Henry M. Cowles demonstrate in their important contributions to Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time and the Senses, a 2023 collection of essays edited by D. Graham Burnett and Justin E. H. Smith, panics over attention aren’t new. Centuries before Alvin Toffler’s 1970 mega-bestseller Future Shock introduced the concept of information overload, fears that people’s attention spans were shrinking already had recurred.

The current preoccupation focus on attention and the subsequent rise of distractibility are not merely psychological or medical issues but deeply rooted in social and cultural transformations driven by economic interests. A newspaper headline put it this way: “Powerful Forces Are Fracking Our Attention.”

As Nathan Heller recently pointed out in The New Yorker, film pacing has quickened, with the average shot duration decreasing, while in music, the mean length of top-performing pop songs has shortened by more than a minute between 1990 and 2020. Meanwhile, the SAT was revamped to be 45 minutes shorter, with many reading comprehension passages now trimmed to just two or three sentences.


Human attention is a scarce resource, and a fierce battle for our eyeballs and attention is underway. We have entered the age of “cognitive capitalism”—as business writers like Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, co-authors of the 2002 bestseller The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, tell us, the biggest challenge facing marketers is to get and keep consumers’ attention.

The attention economy represents a fundamental shift in how value is created and measured in the contemporary world. Unlike previous economic stages that focused on physical goods, information or knowledge, the attention economy is driven by the ability to capture and monetize human attention.

The attention economy is an economic model where human attention is treated as a scarce and valuable commodity. In this framework, businesses and media organizations compete to capture and retain the attention of consumers, which is then monetized through advertising, subscriptions and other revenue streams. The term was popularized by scholars such as Herbert A. Simon and Michael H. Goldhaber, who highlighted the shift from an economy based on material goods to one based on information and attention.

Unlike earlier economic stages, where scarcity was primarily associated with physical goods or resources, the attention economy focuses on the scarcity of human attention. Given the finite amount of time individuals can devote to media consumption, businesses vie for this limited resource.

The rise of digital platforms such as social media, search engines and streaming services has intensified the competition for attention. Algorithms are designed to maximize engagement, often by curating content that keeps users on the platform for as long as possible.

Companies monetize attention through targeted advertising, data collection and personalized content. The more time users spend on a platform, the more data can be gathered and the more ads can be shown, thereby increasing revenue.

With the proliferation of digital content, users are bombarded with information, making it challenging to capture and maintain their attention. This has led to the development of strategies aimed at breaking through the noise, such as clickbait, sensationalism and virality.

The industrial economy focused on the production and distribution of tangible goods. Success was measured by the ability to produce at scale and distribute efficiently. Value was created through physical labor and the manufacturing of products.

In the information economy, which preceded the attention economy, the focus shifted to the production and dissemination of information. The rise of the internet and digital technologies enabled the rapid spread of information, but the primary challenge was managing and organizing vast amounts of data.

The knowledge economy emphasized the role of intellectual capabilities and knowledge assets. Innovation, research and expertise were key drivers of economic growth, with businesses investing heavily in human capital and intellectual property. Now, as Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor, argues in his 2016 study of the business model of “attention merchants,” marketers offer free diversion in exchange for your information, which is sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser.

The constant bombardment of stimuli has led to concerns about decreased attention spans and the ability to engage deeply with content. Quick, easily digestible information often takes precedence over in-depth analysis. The relentless pursuit of attention can have adverse effects on mental health, leading to issues such as anxiety, depression and burnout. Social media platforms, in particular, have been scrutinized for their impact on self-esteem and overall well-being.

The techniques used to capture attention, such as clickbait and sensationalism, raise ethical questions about the manipulation of consumer behavior and the spread of misinformation.

The attention economy is double-edged. Yes, in theory, it customizes information and makes personalized recommendations about entertainment that supposedly tailored to our preferences and interests. But it also distorts internet searches and deforms news coverage, since there are more clicks in crises and conflicts than in consensus.


Few topics have generated as many recent business books as the “attention economy” and several related subjects: productivity (both in business and personal life), efficiency, procrastination, distractibility, time management and juggling multiple roles. Attention, many recent business books show, has become a hot commodity.

Richard A. Lanham’s 2002 study, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, made it clear that we had already entered a new stage in capitalist development.

Lanham’s book makes several arguments that strike me as reasonable:

  • In the attention economy, intellectual property is at least as important as “real” property, with media and distributed entertainment as valuable as the more tangible goods produced by manufacturers.
  • Style—including design, packaging and ornamentation—tends to be as important as substance, since style is what grabs people’s attention.
  • Among the most precious resources in the information economy is the attention to make sense of that information.

Lanham’s most striking conclusion is that in the attention economy, those with a strong background in the arts and humanities are just as valuable as those with strengths in business, engineering and other STEM fields, since they will create the IP as well as the information and the marketing strategies that underlie cognitive capitalism.


Not surprisingly, a host of books, beginning with Steven Covey’s many volumes about the (supposed) habits of highly productive people, claim to tell readers how to become more efficient and effective. Recently, The New York Times offered a list of “8 Productivity Books Time-Management Experts Actually Use,” which readers supplemented with a number of other recommendations, including The Zen Approach to Keeping Time on Your Side and Time Surfing by Paul Loomans, The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done by Dave Crenshaw, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen and James Fallows, and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam.

What advice do these books offer?

  • Do what you enjoy—persistence in a task is greatest when a person relishes the pursuit.
  • Do fewer things at a slower pace—which helps maintain people’s physical and mental well-being while encouraging more creative thinking.
  • Prioritize what matters most—ignore those things that aren’t especially important.
  • Break big tasks into smaller chunks—since tasks that seem too big are viewed as overwhelming and can contribute to fear of failure and self-sabotage.

But why, in today’s time-stressed world, take the time to read a book when various technology-driven solutions are available? There are many apps that claim to limit distractions and increase productivity. These tools include website blockers, focus timers, time-blocking apps and various nudges and reminders.


Even as “attention” and “distraction” have become business world buzzwords, the focus of self-help manuals and best sellers like Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness and Jean M. Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, a substantial body of historical, literary and philosophical studies has also emerged.

Jonathan Crary’s 2001 book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, draws upon studies, between 1880 and 1905, of psychology, philosophy, neurology, early cinema and photography, to examine the connections between attention, perception, subjectivity and the rise of a new commercial visual and auditory culture.

In a nutshell, Crary’s argument is that modern thinking about attention involves a paradox: It serves as a fundamental condition for individual freedom, creativity and personal experience while simultaneously being a crucial element for the efficient functioning of economic and disciplinary institutions and a burgeoning space for mass consumption and spectacle.

In Scenes of Attention, the San Francisco State philosopher Carlos Montemayor has written about the ways that attention can be influenced, prompted, guided and commodified through various sophisticated methods involving algorithms, nudges and other manipulations and stimuli. In the same volume, Brian Yuan, a cultural anthropologist at Princeton, describes the dual-edged nature of classroom technology, which can, on the one hand, be silence inducing and distraction prone while, on the other hand, providing some students with opportunities for self-expression and intellectual engagement otherwise unavailable in more traditional classroom environments. In turn, Yael Geller, a psychiatrist, describes attention deficit and obsessive-compulsive disorders as points on a spectrum that contemporary societies tend to focus upon and intentionally and inadvertently reinforce.

In his 2018 Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, former Google strategist and Oxford-trained philosopher James Williams examines how “systems of intelligent persuasion” and “new armies of deep distraction” are increasingly directing people’s thoughts and behavior, creating new challenges for self-regulation and militating against the pursuit of higher goals and values. He argues that “liberating human attention from the forces of intelligent persuasion” is the defining moral and educational task of the Information Age.


Complaining about students’ lack of focus and engagement is unproductive. Instead, we need to adopt teaching strategies that will improve these aspects in their education. If attention and distraction are indeed among the are among the pressing issues of our time, what can faculty members do to help students individually and collectively to learn how to focus and stay on task?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Redesign lectures to eliminate extraneous and irrelevant information and ensure that the presentations are well structured and relevant. Cognitive overload and poorly structured lectures can inhibit students’ ability to absorb and process essential information.
  2. Integrate project-based learning into your teaching. Engage students in projects that require critical thinking, collaboration and sustained effort. Project-based learning can make the student experience more relevant and exciting, fostering deeper engagement. Select projects that address real-world issues relevant to the students’ lives and future careers. This relevance can increase their motivation to engage deeply with the material.
  3. Make reading assignments more interactive and structured. Use collaborative annotation software to make reading a more interactive and communal activity. Also, structure reading assignments around specific questions. This will help to gradually build students’ ability to engage with longer texts.
  4. Promote intrinsic motivation. Relate your course material to real-life applications. Show your students how the material they are studying is relevant to their lives and future careers. This can increase their intrinsic motivation to engage deeply with the content.
  5. Encourage a growth mindset by emphasizing the value of effort and persistence in learning. Help students see challenges as opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to avoid.


We live in an age of distraction. The mere presence of a smartphone diverts and sidetracks us while reducing our cognitive capacity. But the problem is bigger than smartphones: Our ecology skews our sense of the world, disrupts our attention, undermines our interpersonal relationships and polarizes our politics.

In today’s click culture, people’s attention is a commodity that is for sale, and the monetization of attention has led to a culture of constant distractions, fragmented focus and partial attention.

Companies in the digital age, particularly those in social media, streaming services and online advertising, have economic incentives to maximize user engagement, leading to design choices that encourage distraction. The constant bombardment of notifications and the design of apps to be addictive affect cognitive functions, reducing the capacity for sustained attention and deep work, which are essential for productivity and creativity.

Technologies such as smartphones and the internet have become primary mediators of human attention, leading to changes in how people process information and engage with their environment. At the same time, the cultural valorization of multitasking and continuous connectivity perpetuates a cycle of distraction, as individuals are encouraged to divide their attention across multiple tasks and platforms simultaneously.

In an economy in which we are distracted by design, it’s up to us, as academics, to push back.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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