8 seconds. Multiple sites on the internet state that a teenager’s attention span is 8 seconds… and that the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. Dig a little deeper and you find that this is an urban myth. (Just goes to show that you can’t believe everything on the internet… you have to know your sources.) And while we know that teenagers can have short attention spans, when you consider only focusing for 8 seconds at a time, imagine how unorganized and spaced out all teenagers would all be.
According to the BBC, the idea that there’s a typical length of time for which people can pay attention has also been debunked. Teens may spend a lot of time task switching (what many people call multi-tasking) as they watch a video while playing a video game and talking to their friends. However, most teens can stay engaged for 2 hours while watching a movie and even while reading an engaging book.
The problem is with non-preferred tasks. Teens can get bored easily and have trouble staying focused on things they may not want to do like homework. If they have week attention skills, it becomes very difficult to stay focused because it takes a lot more willpower and cognitive resources to remain focused. And individuals have a limited amount to call upon each day.
It is a lot harder to power through at the end of the day than it is in the morning. The good news is that there are strategies to help and attention skills can be strengthened just like a muscle.
While it is obvious, the first thing to do is to eliminate distractions while doing school work. Have your teen turn off his or her phone or put it in the other room. Close social media sites. They can shut their door or face a wall where they will not see people going by. Of course, make sure they turn off the TV. Wearing headphones and listening to music that is not distracting can help as well.
Plan in breaks or other rewards. It is easier for them to keep working for 30 minutes if they know they will be welcome to take a break when they complete that time. This is commonly known as the Pomodoro method. Knowing there is an end in sight can make paying attention seem less oppressive. Using a timer makes it easier for your teen to remember to get up, move, and rest his or her eyes. Then, it is easier for your teen to refocus after a break.
There are also ways that individuals can improve focus over the long term. For example, meditation has been shown to improve focus. It is a practice that helps you remain in the present moment and avoid distractions. These both help improve focus. Another way to improve focus is through martial arts. When you have to be very conscious of where your body is in space and the precise movements you must make, it helps to train focus.
Teens are Developing Empathy
The teenage years are a jumble of childhood self-perception and adult aspirations. When teens are motivated, they can change the world. For example, the activist group Team Enough is run by high school students who lobby state and federal governments, research Senators and Bills, and dedicate themselves to a cause.
One of the ways that teens develop empathy is through cognitive flexibility. This gives them the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — to be able to see things from a different perspective. However, it requires attentional focus and redirection to happen quickly for a teen. When a teen has strong attention skills, this can be easier for them. If not, they may find it challenging to feel empathy for others.
Improving Attention Skills
If your teen is having attention issues, it may be that they are being asked to focus on things about which they simply don’t care (non-preferred tasks). Unfortunately, that is not going to get them very far in life as there are all kinds of things we need to focus on that are non-preferred. While meditation or martial arts can help over time, they are not as much fun as a video game. BrainLeap’s gaze-driven video games are a fun way to train attention skills. Imagine how 20-30 minutes a day could change your teen’s ability to pay attention!