The Impact of the Pandemic on Attention Spans

While not many miss the time of online school, the few benefits like having all your electronics just a foot away and always having access to food are definitely missed by most students. But did we “mess up” our attention spans and increase our dependency on electronics through the familiarity and comfort our phones and social media apps gave us during the pandemic?

Rahul Raman

Since the beginning of the recent school year, it’s been apparent that students are more glued to their iPads than ever before. More often than not, I find myself looking up from my own device during class to see an array of screens in front of me displaying anything from 2048 and Wordle to recaps of March Madness. Of course, this isn’t an issue which I am not a part of—I am all too familiar with finding myself distracted in class, constantly trying to complete the crossword of the day or homework for another teacher. I struggle to remember life and school before the pandemic, but I find it harder to believe that it was always this bad. That then leaves the question: why are students more addicted to their screens now more than ever?

During the year of distance learning at the beginning of the pandemic, many became all too familiar with the use of phones in class, clocking out after attendance, and doing anything but academic work. The shift from an at-home, lenient environment where essay-writing and problem-solving could be avoided by, say, scrolling through TikTok, back to a normal schooling environment, flipped the majority of students upside down, leading them to search for ways to retain this lifestyle. Lo and behold, the iPad—unlimited access to the vastness of the internet—was there to provide respite from the unfamiliar monotony of 85 minute periods. But has the pandemic itself had a tangible impact on our abilities to concentrate for long periods of time?

According to Alyssa Deitchman of NYU Applied Psychology, the instantaneous gratification of social media encourages signals from the reward center of the brain in a manner similar to the neurological reaction of drug use. When someone gets used to these experiences, situations in which immediate responses aren’t present elicit shock and discomfort from individuals, prompting them to search for these pleasure responses. When comparing this to the state of students, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the year of perpetual access to—or what some may call dependency on—screens may have contributed to this kind of brain behavior. This means that many students are spending the entire day at school looking for sources of this instant gratification, prompting them to indulge in non-academic activities on their iPads during class and off periods. 

This clearly isn’t conducive to a productive learning environment, so how should we fix this problem? Should every single unauthorized website be blocked? Should harsher consequences be implemented to deter students from being distracted? Maybe not. Where there’s a will, there’s a way: eliminating current sources of distractions will only lead students to find new ones, and be even more distracted trying to steer through the legal and illegal websites.

Although it’s been almost an entire academic year since we have returned to in-person learning, that hasn’t made the transition any less difficult on students. Whether breaking up the monotony of class periods with stretch breaks, more variation in learning opportunities, or even occasionally eliminating the need of iPads from classes, there are many routes that can be taken in addressing the distractive component of this technology—it’ll just take some trial and error to see what works. So while technology has changed learning as a whole for the better, it’s integral to the survival of students both academically and mentally that we “fix” and correct this emerging issue of constantly needing stimulation. Because even though we’d rather be playing Wordle, this short attention span we are creating is only going to leave us with detrimental, long-term consequences (like being an Ipad kid as an adult).