Is Your Attention Span Really Declining?

The psychologist Gloria Mark (1)  has found that our attention spans appear to have decreased over the past 2 decades. Mark cites her own studies (which are supported by the findings of other research) in arguing that there is a significant body of evidence that shows that the average length of time that people attend to any screen has declined from  2 and half minutes down to 47 seconds.  These studies reportedly monitored how long people attended to the screen they were looking at without switching to a different screen.  Mark chronicles this decline over the past 20 years and cites this research and other studies as clear evidence for a decline in our attention spans.  While Mark discusses how we are at risk for increased interruptions and are barraged by an overwhelming amount of input (emails, texts, and a host of messages from other sources) she also notes that we are prone to self-interruption.  Mark describes self-interruption as when we are in the midst of doing something (possibly reading this blog) and we suddenly find we are interrupting ourselves and checking our emails or messages.  She distinguishes this phenomenon from the need to take a break from a challenging task, something we all need to do.  Rather, she equates this form of self-interruption as akin to external interruptions. It is not clear whether this propensity to interrupt ourselves is a function of our shrinking attention spans (are we so used to external interruptions and distractions that we now distract and interrupt ourselves?) or whether  other factors contribute to this phenomena.  Regardless of the cause, Mark notes that her research has documented our increased tendency to interrupt ourselves. Mark highlights how distractions (whether internal or external) not only impede or disrupt our focus, but that our ability to recover, get back on task, takes far longer than we might expect. On the podcast, Hidden Brain  (2), where Mark was a recent guest, she details how on average it takes over twenty minutes to get back on task. This she explains is due to one interruption causing a shift in focus, which often in turn is itself disrupted by additional interruptions. Thus, likely further contributing to our difficulties getting back on task, and competing tasks. 

One additional point raised by Mark involves what is commonly referred to as “multitasking.” Mark, along with other researchers (3), have suggested that multitasking is really rapid task shifting and that such shifting hampers performance and efficiency rather than improving it. Social media is cited (3) as a culprit in multitasking, i.e., our tendency to check our social media while doing other tasks as well as the pervasive negative impact of social media on our capacity to sustain attention.  

In a similar vein, Joahann Hari has written quite eloquently on this subject. In his book, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again” (4) Hari chronicles his own struggles with this issue intermingled with discussions of research and theory on the topic.  Hari’s work is quite wide ranging: from discussing theories of attention, to neuroscience research on attention, to considering the social/environmental factors that are negatively affecting our capacity to pay attention. Like Mark, and many other researchers (whom Hari cites), Hari argues that there is a clear decline in our attentional capacity and this has serious negative social ramifications. Hari is quite vehement in his argument that social factors, starting with big tech, the proliferation of social media and smartphones, are key factors in our declining attention span. Hari considers how different types of attention are disrupted by these forces: our ability to sustain focus on specific tasks and activities (what has been referred to a spotlight attention);  our capacity to reflect on and attend to more long term goals (starlight attention); and to our being able to attend to and clarify our values and longer range goals (daylight attention). He references the work of James Williams (5) who developed the understanding of different types of attention. 

It is important to differentiate between the broader questions discussed in this blog and ADHD.   The phenomena of shrinking attention spans as examined by Mark,  Hari, and others, does not entail a consideration of ADHD.  These are different issues; ADHD is clearly a distinct disorder.  However, it is quite reasonable to hypothesize that: (a) people with ADHD may be particularly vulnerable to the forces that appear to be leading to our shrinking attention spans; and (b) that there is a risk of misdiagnosis, i.e., attributing problems to ADHD when they are really more reflective of this broader social problem.  An example of this may be the rising rates of ADHD (note, the increase in rates is a source of much debate with some arguing that it reflects more awareness of ADHD while others suggest that multiple factors, including the general decline in attention, may account for these increases) (6). If one reflects on research on the negative impacts of social media (a likely culprit for declining attention spans) on teen girls (an impact that appears far greater than on boys) as well the increased rates of anxiety and depression (particularly in teens, and especially for teenage girls) we can easily recognize how a combination of anxiety (which can disrupt attention, as can depression) combined with social influences may explain or at least contribute to this increased rate of diagnosis of ADHD in this age group  (7).  Clearly, a variety of explanations are possible, such as the underdiagnosis of girls with ADHD due to the reality that ADHD may show itself differently in girls and women. However, it is important to be aware of the impact of border social forces on our capacity for sustained attention, for those with and without ADHD. 

While these findings can be rather demoralizing, it is important to note that we have solutions at hand. Mark details several solutions which I would label as common sense solutions: turn off your phone, put your phone away when you are working on a task, and set limits with your children and teens on phone/internet/social media use. Mark offers additional suggestions:  having an increased awareness of our propensity to get off task; setting specific and limited times to check email and messages; being more aware of our vulnerability in terms of being easily interrupted and using this awareness to help ourselves avoid this trap; and taking regular breaks.  The limitation of these solutions is that they rely on the individual.  A large body of evidence suggests that will power and increased awareness are often rather weak lines of defense  (8).  Hari argues quite strongly  that social factors, particularly the ways in which social media has been constructed, are designed to capture and keep our attention, are more salient and that broader social solutions are needed.  He engages in a lively and interesting debate on this point in an interview with Ezra Klien (9) which is well worth listening to.    Jonathan Haidt, a leading psychologist, researcher and writer (10) has also argued that we need social solutions. Haidt made this argument when talking about the impact of phones and social media on kids.  A point which is a major concern of Hari’s as well. Others, such as the tech writer Timothy Wu and the social critic Yves Cotton, have made generally similar arguments regarding the impact of the economy and especially social media on attention (11).  Personally, I find Hari’s emphasis on social forces quite persuasive, but at the time the need for individual solutions is also important as large social change is quite difficult to engineer.  In closing, I would strongly recommend that we all pay more attention to the problem of our declining attention spans as it impacts all aspects of our day to day lives. I am also reminded of something a family I worked with years ago told me, which is that the sessions we held were the only time they all talked together.  We all need to make an effort to carve out time and space to reflect and engage with those we care about, and we all need to protect ourselves from the distractions that proliferate in the world around us. 


  1. Mark, Gloria, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity, 2023.
  2. The January 15th, 2024 episode of the podcast, the Hidden Brain, with Gloria Mark, offers an interesting discussion of the decline of our attention spans.
  3. The Negative impact of multitasking. There is a growing body of evidence supporting the claim that multitasking causes harm. A short article from Stanford University’s Institute of Neuroscience offers a concise summary of these findings: The article references the work of Medore and associates, which strongly suggests that lapses in attention result from efforts to multitask, with a particular focus on the role of social media:
  4. Hari, Johann, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again”,  20  . Hari’s book is well worth reading. It ranges from examining theories of types of attention, to documenting the decline in attention spans, to offering a broad discussion of the reasons for this decline.
  5. James Williams work on the typology of attention  is detailed in his 2018 book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Williams also has a number of youtube videos on this topic.  
  6. An Atlantic  magazine article on the topic summarizes the rising rates of ADHD diagnosis and considers possible causes.
  7. Multiple researchers and organizations have documented significant increases in rates of mental illness, particularly depression, in teenage girls over the past 10 years. Sources include:
  8. Johann Hari discusses the research on will power in his book. However, the limits of will power and how much it can be strengthened continue to be debated by a variety of researchers, theorists and other social scientists. 
  9. Erza Klien, in his podcast, The Ezra Klien shows, offers a slightly longer interview with Gloria Mark which also covers many of the issues addressed in the Hidden Brain podcast, while examining some of the complexities for the decline in attention span, in more depth. or also see:
  10. Jonathan Haidt has written extensively on the negative impact of social media, particularly on teens.  See his article in Reason magazine for a summary:,he’s%20publishing%20essays%20on%20the 
    • Haidt is not the only psychologist or commentator to address this issue. The psychologist Jean Twenge has written extensively on this issue as well. 

There are a number of social critics, philosophers and writers who have discussed the deleterious impact on our attention that they attribute to social media and tech firms, and the general economic structure of our societies. See for example,  Timothy Wu’s 2016 book The Attention Merchants or Yves Citton’s, The Ecology of Attention,  to name a few.