“Attention span” refers to the amount of time a person can concentrate focused attention on something. Depending on the task, the individual, and other factors, attention spans can range from a few seconds to several minutes. The average is from five to 20 minutes, although it is possible to extend this time with various mental techniques. There are indications that a person’s attention span may be affected by early and prolonged exposure to television or the Internet, although this has not been conclusively proved. Developmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also affect attention spans.
Complex mental activities such as reading, mathematics, and the creation of artwork require focused attention. This is not limited to mental activity, however; many physical activities, such as athletics or juggling, also require intense focus. Very young children generally have difficulty achieving this focus. This is why books and educational materials for this age group often feature bright colors and short narratives designed to capture their attention. As they mature, most people are able to extend their attention spans when necessary.
Studies of attention span suggest that most adults are only able to maintain attention on a single subject for roughly 20 minutes. For prolonged tasks, they will consciously refocus their attention on the subject periodically. This has limitations, however; film producers, for example, try to keep movies shorter than two hours, as it is believed most audiences will lose focus after this amount of time. Drivers on cross-country journeys are advised to take frequent breaks so they can keep their attention on road conditions. Many people indulge in “multitasking,” dividing their attention between several subjects at once, but the focus on individual tasks invariably suffers; this is particularly dangerous when driving.
Since the 1970s, there have been concerns that electronic media, particularly television, can affect attention spans. A 2003 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that constant television exposure to very young children can result in decreased attention spans in later life. Other factors may also be involved, however; the report concluded that further research is necessary. Use of the Internet may also be a factor in reducing attention span. It has been demonstrated that many Internet users spend less than a minute on any given web page.
An inability to increase one’s attention span may be an indicator of ADHD. Children and adults with this condition have difficulty maintaining focus for even brief periods of time. It is possible to compensate for ADHD with behavior modification and, often, medications. There are, however, other reasons why a person may have difficulty focusing; some people simply find too many potential distractions in everyday life. These distractions can include electronic gadgets and media; ever-present advertising messages; and duties to work, family, and society.