The 7-Second Attention Span

September 5, 2010 by

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Attending a recent conference of Jewish educators, I and another 300 seasoned teachers and school heads were barraged by a speaker on Israel advocacy repeating a mantra that our students and young adults possess an attention span of no more than 7 seconds. The BBC referred to our incredibly shrinking attention span as ‘turning into digital goldfish‘.

The phenomenon of information overload and the minituarization of our attention spans – and its impact on reading, participation in the public discourse, and education – is well known. My worry is that the mantra of a 7 second attention span is rooted in an entire set of assumptions that undermine our confidence in the ability to educate and in the ability of young people to participate in a meaningful way in making informed choices regarding who they want to be.

The 7 second attention span can be easily used as a way to belittle the talents and potentials of young adults, and can easily be used to undermine notions of agency, and to support authoritarian takes on education and politics. ‘If they can only focus for 7 seconds, then we need to tell them what to think,’ would be one way of capturing the danger raised when the 7 second attention span becomes a key way of understanding young people and their abilities to contend with the world around them.

If the 7 second attention span is an incontrovertible fact of the internet age then how do students still manage to graduate from Stanford and Harvard and Hebrew University with degrees in medicine, law, phsyics, and the humanities? If we are becoming digital goldfish, why do we see so many young people engaged in social activism, cultural innovation, and volunteer initiatives?

The mantra of the 7 second attention span is a self-fulfilling prophecy that endangers the ability of teachers and community leaders to engage seriously with young adults. It perpetuates a stereotype that young people are shallow, fickle, and therefore need not be taken seriously. Young people are smart enough to know when they are being put down. And in the context of Jewish life, young adults will choose to opt out if they sense that the leadership of the organized community holds them in disdain. We need to break the 7 second attention span mantra as a first step in offering Jewish youth an honest, respectful invitation to full participation in Jewish life.

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