Tips &

Tips &

How do we fix our children’s attention spans?

February 2024
Janthea Brigden
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Many years ago, when mobile phones were relatively new, my child’s friend was walking along the road with his head buried in his phone and was almost knocked over in front of me. I had my own two (much younger) children firmly by the hand and my friend and I had been chatting whilst her teenager wandered on ahead. That incident stayed with me and is the result of our policy of ‘no phones on outings’ at Nipperbout.

More recently, the serious effects of smartphone use on children’s brains, has been the subject of much debate and discussion. Joe Ryrie and his wife Daisy have started a campaign called Smartfree Childhood. A post by Daisy went viral within a few hours, highlighting the level of concern from parents about the effects of social media on children’s attention spans.

We are the midst of an attention crisis and no one is immune. It has even been described as an ‘attention war’ as technology finds cleverer and cleverer ways to divert our attention. 

You may have noticed yourself that you concentration isn’t what it used to be. Our brains are being continually bombarded with competing sources of attention - from notifications pinging on our phones to digital advertising when we’re walking through town centres. As technology finds cleverer and cleverer ways to fight for our attention, are our attention spans getting shorter. 

In a study carried out by King’s College London earlier this year, they found that 49% of adults felt that their attention span was shorter than it used to be. 

At the same time, diagnosis of ADHD in both adults and children has gone through the roof in recent years. 

How is this affecting our children and teens? 

Social media apps like TikTok are literally designed to capture and hold the user’s attention and to release the feel-good chemical, dopamine. This rush of dopamine can easily become an addictive feeling, which is why children, teens and adults can spend hours scrolling videos on TikTok. 

The length of content has become progressively shorter over the years and TikTok offers micro-entertainment in 15 second videos that play one after the other based on an algorithm of what the person has engaged with before. 

A shocking 97% of 12 year olds in the UK now have smart phones. There is beginning to be a backlash against the use of smart phones for children and young people, including the call for a global ban on smart phones in schools by UNESCO. 

Apps like TikTok, Facebook and Instagram are designed to be addictive, but are they actually affecting our children’s brains? 

84% of school teachers reported that their students’ attention spans dropped drastically post-COVID and they had to spend less than 10 minutes on each activity to engage them. More than two in three teachers questioned said pupils’ behaviour in class had declined. They reported that children were more likely to move around the room, complain about being bored and ‘annoy’ or ‘provoke’ others in the classroom. This loss of attention since COVID has been attributed to children spending more time on social media and less time on focused tasks. 

Attention spans in young adults

A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. The number of people young people and adults seeking an ADHD diagnosis has skyrocketed in recent years. 

Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes this could be to do with the way that our brain processes information. He said “your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once.” However, the average teenager is often trying to juggle up to six different forms of media at once. This negatively impacts on the ability to focus on any one of the tasks in front of them. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling.

“They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.”

Even something as small as a notification pinging on your phone when you’re focused on a task means that “your brain has to reconfigure, when it goes from one task to another”. When this happens, the evidence shows that “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.”

For example, one study at the Carnegie Mellon University’s got 136 students to sit a test. Some of them had to have their phones switched off, and others had their phones on and received intermittent text messages. The students who received messages performed, on average, 20% worse. 

Whilst it is true that children’s attention spans are naturally shorter than adults’, is there anything we can do to claw back our children and teens’ attention spans? 

 7 tips for regaining your child’s attention span

1. Allocate time for focused tasks 

Giving your child a set time to focus on a task like homework helps them to mentally prepare and sets the limitations of how long they are required to focus for. Giving them some notice to wind down what they are doing is also more helpful, and likely to yield positive results, than springing ‘homework time!’ on them when they’re in the middle of playing a video game. 

2. Lean through playing 

Learning doesn’t always have to mean sitting down reading or revising for a test. Children, (especially younger ones), often learn better through games and movement. If you want to teach them maths for example, you could devise a game outside that involves counting and moving objects from place to place. 

3. Remove distractions 

As already mentioned, the human brain finds it almost impossible to split its attention, so removing distractions is essential for your child’s brain to work efficiently. Turn off the TV or the radio. Move your phone off the table. Put toys out of sight. Give their brain a chance to not get distracted and focus on the task in front of them. 

4. Get moving (preferably outside)

Doing exercise before a focused task has been proven to help increase concentration for both children and adults. This is because it increases blood flow to the brain which in turn fires up your neurones and promotes cell growth, particularly in the hippocampus. Just 20 minutes of exercise before studying can improve your concentration and help you focus your learning. This is even more beneficial if you exercise outdoors!

So before next homework time, take the dog out for a walk or have a quick dance party in your living room! 

5. Try mindful tasks 

Practicing mindfulness is proven to increase concentration levels for people of all ages. In its essence, it’s training your mind to be fully aware of one thing at a time. When we are able to do this, our ability to concentrate increases. There are plenty of mindfulness resources for children available online that include suggestions for mindfulness based activities and meditations. 

6. Make sure they’re hydrated 

Being dehydrated can decrease your concentration levels significantly. Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can lead to poor concentration, increased reaction time, and short-term memory problems, as well as moodiness and anxiety. So before asking your child to do any focused task, give them a glass of water — it could make a considerable difference! 

7. Remember that other factors can make a difference e.g the time of day  

Children have different optimum times of concentration depending of their age. For example, some studies have shown that teenagers perform better at school when they have a later start time. This is because teens have naturally later wake up times than younger children or adults. 

Younger children may need to nap throughout the day, so asking them to do concentrate when it’s almost nap time is unlikely to be successful. Equally, if you know that your child has had a bad night’s sleep, it will likely be harder for them to concentrate. Scientists have proven that sleep deprivation leads to lower levels of alertness and concentration. In particular, this hampers your ability to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. So one of the best things we can do for our child’s concentration is try to make sure that they are getting enough, good quality sleep. 

Have any of these tips worked for you or your child’s concentration?