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The Teenage Attention Span Really is Short So Plan Accordingly

Spoiler alert! Teens don’t like to study. Okay, that falls into the ‘Duh’ category. So why do I bring it up?

A recent interaction with my teenage kids opened my eyes to the most likely culprit. Any guesses? There are the obvious suspects: Because it’s boring. Because it takes time away from them playing video games. Because it’s not as much fun as watching YouTube videos.

Any of those would be acceptable answers. But I realized there’s another, bigger issue at play here: the teen attention span.

The day before my son’s history final I told him I wanted him to hit the books a little longer that night. I knew he’d already done some studying when he got home from school, but I thought one more hour after dinner was reasonable. He groaned. His shoulders slumped.

And he whined that he didn’t have the attention span for that. I said, tough luck; get to it.

When I mentioned this to my wife, my 13-year-old daughter also happened to be in the room. She said she has the same problem with her attention span. Later that night, as I thought about those two conversations, I began questioning how I had handled things with my son. Then I did a little research and confirmed my suspicions. Here’s what I learned about the teenage attention span.

Attention Span Research: Man versus Goldfish

Research shows that in 2000, the average attention span of a person was 12 seconds. Nowadays, it’s 8 seconds. Research also shows that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. So, the ugly truth of the matter is that we, as a society, have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.

The good news is that we are still capable of holding our focus on something when we are actively engaged in doing so. According to my research, the average 16-year-old can focus for between 48-80 minutes. However, it doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. And their ability to focus gets less and less over that time. Apparently, even when we’re trying, over time, our mind wanders.

Turn Weakness into Strength: Piecemeal Studying

And that’s when I had my epiphany. I talked this over with my wife —an elementary school teacher who is the master of knowing how long kids can hold focus—and we came up with a solution: piecemeal studying. The idea was to break their study time up into manageable bite-sized chunks. The trick is to find just that right length of time where it’s long enough to get into a rhythm and short enough to keep their attention focused.

For our kids, we’ve found that 30 minutes is the golden length of time. They hunker down for a half hour, take a break for maybe 15-30 minutes, and then get back at it for another 30 minutes. Rinse and repeat. As a wise man once said, running a race is easier when you know where the finish line is. There’s something to that. The shorter chunks of time don’t feel so overwhelming, the kids are able to focus, and they can see the finish line each time.

So far so good. There’s been less whining, less eye-rolling, and less general teen-like attitude. How this plays out with their grades, only time will tell. But in the meantime, I feel like we had a small victory.  Teens: 1. Goldfish: 0.

Bryan Johnston

Bryan Johnston is a freelance writer, author of several books, and the Creative Director for a creative agency in Seattle, Washington. He is married, has two teens, and one large goldendoodle. He loves baseball and movies and thinks A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the most enjoyable book he’s ever read.