You may have seen on big news outlets such as The Independent, Time Magazine, or the New York Times that our attention span has shrunk to less than that of a goldfish. The average human attention span is currently at only 7 seconds and it is only getting shorter with the increased usage of mobile devices. 

Is that statement true though? 

As reported by the BBC, this source wasn’t linked to any recognizable studies. Scientists and psychologists are bewildered by how this statistic came into circulation. According to K.R. Subramanian, “The idea of an average attention span is very much meaningless. It is task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task varies depending on task demands.” 

Before we move forward, what does attention span even mean?

A quick Google search will show you that attention span is the length of time for which a person is able to concentrate on a particular activity or subject. According to Medicine Net, the medical definition of attention is the ability to focus selectively on a selected stimulus, sustaining that focus and shifting it at will; the ability to concentrate. 

To dive deeper into attention span, let’s first understand the different types of attention.

There are 4 different types of attention: 

  • Sustained Attention

Sustained Attention is our ability to focus on one activity for a long period of time. We often use sustained attention for tasks that take a long time or require intense focus – for example, work meetings, exams, lectures or even watching a movie. 

  • Selective Attention

Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. This is our ability to focus on one thing while there are many other distractions around us. Our attention is limited, and selective attention allows us to ignore details that are not important. This is how we’re able to focus on a conversation with a friend while driving or work from home while kids are running around. 

  • Alternating attention

Alternating attention is the ability of mental flexibility that allows you to shift your focus of attention and move between tasks; alternating your attention back and forth between two different tasks that require the use of different areas of your brain. An example would be switching between unrelated tasks such as cooking while helping your child with her homework. 

  • Divided Attention 

On the other hand, divided attention is the type of focus that takes place during multitasking. We’re able to split our attention between two tasks at once, meaning we can listen to a podcast while writing an email or watch television while cooking. We struggle to keep divided attention up for long, and we’re usually less productive at both things when we try to do them simultaneously. Unlike alternating attention, when you are using divided attention, you do not change from one task to another completely different task. Instead, you attempt to perform them at the same time. So you are really splitting your attention instead of alternating it. 


The human attention span is definitely changing, but it’s not decreasing. 

A study done by Microsoft found out that spending more time on social media or looking at multiple screens reduces the likelihood of focusing on one task for a prolonged period of time. The participants in the study were tasked to identify and respond to patterns of letters – something repetitive and boring. 

The study made the discovery that people who spent more time on digital media actually used their attention in different ways. The evolution of technology and social media is training consumers to become better at processing information through short bursts of high attention. In other words, the changes to attention mean we are now able to process more information, just differently. As a result, we are now better at shifting our attention between things without compromising any of them. Now we just have to find the content that’s worth paying attention to. 

The neuro-scientific reasoning behind this is the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is released every time we do something rewarding, which makes us feel good. When we find something interesting, we get a dopamine hit. When we spend time doing something dull and pointless, we don’t.

How can we shift the way we learn to adapt to our changing attention span?

Now that we know our attention span is changing, how can we adapt the way we learn to address these changes?

According to Insivia, learners retain 95% of the content when it is communicated via a video compared to 10% when the information is in text. 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text. Other than videos, elements like games and quizzes also drive engagement and boost learners’ knowledge retention. Guess what? Elearning might actually improve your attention span. 

Here are 4 ways in which why e-learning can be beneficial to our “shrinking attention span” –

1. Microlearning

Microlearning is a learning method whereby learners get their information in small doses or bite-sized segments. Microlearning modules are usually presented in no more than 10-minute portions. Examples of microlearning can be simple texts in flashcard formats, short videos, or snippets of audio. Some online learning platforms still present information in longer formats, for example, an hour-long webinar. However, the versatility of the internet allows users to break any digital format into smaller pieces. For example, breaking a 6-hour long Zoom meeting into 3 sessions, or splitting a lengthy video into smaller bite-sized chunks. 

2. Flexibility

Most materials on the internet remain on the internet. This offers flexibility for learners that traditional in-person seminars and workshops cannot offer. Every student has a different learning style and e-learning allows them to create their own learning timetable and learn at their own pace. This gives learners the opportunity to sit down and learn at the pace most optimal for them. Flexibility in e-learning also takes away the pressure for learners to absorb information at the pace of others in a traditional classroom setting, which might be too fast-paced for learners to understand the information and ask questions. 

3. Personalization

In a traditional learning environment, the learner normally has limited control over the topics covered and how information is presented. The way that training was traditionally set up often included predefined training modules with a one-size-fits-all approach rather than building a learner-centric environment. On the other hand, online learning allows learners to choose specific subjects and formats to study. The ability to personalize learning empowers learners to take action and have control over their own education. They are able to customize their learning experience by having a choice and say in the processes and content that is being provided.

4. Content Creation 

The solution to attention span problems is creating high-quality, immersive training content. Personalization, especially at the start of your content, can help to boost our selective attention. Interactivity throughout the reading experience can lead to greater sustained attention, keeping engagement high in longer pieces. Some examples of interactivities are quizzes, interactive games, or even simulated job practices. Research has shown that simply switching to a more interactive format can boost reader engagement by 73%.

So where do we go from here?

To answer the question, no, online learning is not shrinking your attention span. Your attention span is also definitely not shorter than that of a goldfish. 

Modern learners are expected to absorb information quickly and in shorter formats than before. E-learning is highly flexible and provides a level of personalization that traditional forms of education cannot. With the increased distractions we have around us, there must be a societal change when sharing information. Instead of trying to reverse our “shrinking attention span”, we can adapt to the new and evolved way of learning and receiving information.  

Want to find out more about how SmartUp can help you create engaging content to captivate your learners’ attention? Speak to us here!