Attention in a Post-COVID World

By Anna Genna

When asking my classmate Matthew Etzel about his ability to pay attention, he said, “I have the attention span of a fly.” While this is a common expression, when I looked up how long a fly’s actual attention span is, I was given one answer: about four seconds. For comparison, a goldfish’s attention span is nine seconds. The average human, meanwhile, has an attention span of eight seconds. It is astounding how short human’s attention spans are, that they can pay attention only a bit longer than a fly, and less than a goldfish. 

When I asked around, most people responded with a definite yes, their attention span had gotten much worse after lockdown. ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) medication use was higher after the lockdown was lifted. Depression and anxiety rates also went up both during and after lockdown, which is correlated with ADHD or other attention issues. 

While lockdown may be a factor in the decreasing attention spans, it is important to note that over time — especially after the invention of the internet and social media — focus and attention has been on the decline. With people being bombarded by different stimuli, they have learned to focus on none, but be aware of all. This, along with cognitive overload, forces people to have short attention spans in order to keep up. When focusing on broader topics, like lectures, people have the ability to pay attention for around 15 to 20 minutes.  If you look at TED Talks, most are around 10 to 13 minutes long — that is on purpose. Much older TED Talks have spanned about 20 minutes, but have gotten shorter with humans’ attention spans. 

Schools have been the main place for these short attention spans to play out, possibly aided by the worsening work ethic that also resulted from the lockdown. Attention spans were already shown to be getting shorter, and there is an argument that this was not affected by the lockdown. Despite the decline in attention spans, lockdown has only served to make it worse. At the current rate, adjustments must be made, so that we do not turn out to be equals with the common fruit fly.