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The six-second attention span

Cellphone teen

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By the spring of 2007, according to a study done by Mediamark Research Inc., the number of American families relying solely on landlines, and the number of American families relying solely on cellphones, intersected at about 14 percent.

By June of 2012, almost 36 percent of American homes only used cellphones, and another 16 percent used cellphones for all or most of their calls, even while they kept their landlines.

Today, about 91 percent of American adults have a cellphone, 56 percent have a smart cellphone, and apparently more than half use landlines only at work.

One positive outcome of that trend is illuminated by an experience those of us in middle age, who can remember our lives as teenagers, will painfully recall. It involved the endless battles we had with parents over access to the family’s one hard-wired telephone, on which we were prone to talk with friends for hours, especially if there was at least one girl on the line.

In those days, the busy signal was more common than the ring tone, at least at night.

Today, if you have a teenager, there’s an almost 80-percent likelihood that teen has a cellphone, on which she or he can talk and text almost to their heart’s content without interrupting the family’s telecom access.

Which brings us to Javia Headly, co-editor of the Sonoma Valley High School newspaper, the Dragon’s Tale, and author of the Op-Ed column, who went way out on an editorial limb and took a swipe at the perverse impact of compulsive cellphone usage on high school learning efficiency.

Headly quotes some of the same survey results referenced above, done by the impeccably-reliable Pew Research Center, which also revealed that one-in-three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, and 15 percent send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.

For either group, that many texts means our teens are likely texting in class, in their cars, during dinner, during homework and lying in bed. It also would seem to suggest that for an alarming number of teens the cellphone has become a leading, if not the primary, source of social interaction.

Headly quotes Pew research to suggest that constant texting, along with reliance on superficial cellphone searches, has begun to shorten the attention span and the research ability of high school students who are increasingly conditioned to grow impatient with any information source that can’t be delivered in Twitter time.

Good point, since Twitter’s 140-character count limit has driven users into fits of brevity from which their brains may never recover. The old MTV, 16-second attention span now seems hopelessly long by comparison, since Twitter has also redefined video length with its Vine app, on which users share six-second videos.

What does all this mean and where does it lead? We don’t know. But we’re encouraged that a savvy high school senior is asking the same question and is worried about the answer.

To Javia Headly we say, right on girl, and keep your brain engaged on these and other questions of information transfer in the digital age that too many of us adults are simply resigned to ignore.

  • Phineas Worthington

    Kudos to Ms. Headly, I couldn’t agree more that young brains are being trained wrong by so many of the electronic devices of today. These devices are handicapping young brains from acquiring the necessary communication, reading, writing, focusing, and social skills that are still essential for self-esteem and success.