We are two years into a pandemic that continues to ravage the globe, most recently bythe Omicron variant which has made up 73% of new cases in the U.S.
A potential side effect may be our inability to concentrate on much of anything else – like a movie. Planning to sit through one? The latest running times for Oscar-hungry films like “Dune,” “House of Gucci” and “West Side Story” are more than 2 hours, 30 minutes. Checking out Netflix or HBO‘s latest drama? It likely has an hour-long running time per episode.
“COVID has pretty much eaten up my attention span,” says Kathleen Schmidt, publicity director at Skyhorse Publishing. “I can’t get through an entire book unless it’s an audiobook. The prospect of a 2.5 hour movie sounds like torture.”
Social justice advocate Lia Taylor Schwartz adds: “I can’t watch a whole movie anymore. I set goals to read a single chapter of a book when previously I would have luxuriated in a good book.”
“COVID led to many people experiencing cognitive overload, whereby our brains become short-circuited due to being inundated with information our brains are trying to process,” says Crystal Burwell, director of outpatient services for Newport Healthcare Atlanta. “The external stimuli and nature of the environment play a major role in attention spans and building emotional resilience to combat COVID fatigue.”
The pandemic has accelerated shifting attention spans and made it easier for people to satiate themselves with shorter-form content instead.
“This struggle was mounting since before COVID,” says Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University. “We only have a finite amount of mental resources and energy. The more and more that becomes compounded, the more we must compensate for those energy drains by cutting out the superfluous or unnecessary drains on our mental reserves.”
Are attention spans actually decreasing? It depends who you ask.
Unless you’ve been living under a (comfortable!) rock, COVID will have somehow upended your daily life since March 2020, whether you’re a student, a parent, a young professional or a retiree.
“This high level of unpredictability has caused people to live with a higher level of agitation, anxiety and worry which makes it difficult to concentrate and get invested in projects that require our full attention,” Romanoff says. “Instead, people are putting blinders on, while they conserve their energy, to superficially engage in more mindless activities or shows to distract them without feeling drained of their mental resources.”
People have been itching for shorter versions of entertainment for a while.
“The influx of multiple kinds of entertainment – socials, YouTube videos, user-generated content – means there is more choice than ever for shorter form content,” says Yalda T. Uhls, founding director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at the University of California-Los Angeles. “Given how quickly these platforms have grown the demand was clearly there, and long before the pandemic. Remember Quibi?”
But not all experts are convinced attention spans are decreasing. Limited studies have shown that young adults have been able to sustain attention the same way as before the pandemic, but those who have actually had COVID-19 could face cognitive deficits into the recovery phase.
“Even prior to the pandemic, there were conflicting ideas concerning whether our attention spans are actually decreasing or not,” says Keiland Cooper, cognitive scientist and neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine. “Our attention is likely variable depending on the task at hand, our mood, environment and a host of other factors. This makes it difficult to study and to find a ‘catch all’ metric to study over time.”
Cooper says our attention spans aren’t even the main issue here – but the sheer volume of content with which we’re presented.
“More likely is that we have more stress, new demands and are information-overloaded,” Cooper says. “It is not that we have lost the capability to watch and find ourselves engrossed by long-duration stories – whether it be a movie, a series, or even a conversation – but rather we may have to spend more time thinking about and dealing with the added stress we didn’t have before. This certainly will affect attention.”
People have also gotten used to binging, piecemealing, pausing and stopping entertainment over the last two years, says Cristel Russell, professor of marketing at Pepperdine University.
“I do believe that people may have a harder time remaining engaged in longer movies as a result of the pandemic,” says Rachel Cavallaro, a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks in Boston. “It seems that most people are consuming the majority of their entertainment in 10-to-30 second bits, which can make it a challenge to remain focused for an extended period of time, especially in a lower intensity show or film.”
The reality of pandemic fatigue
Pandemic fatigue is a real thing (just ask the World Health Organization), leaving people demotivated and exhausted with regular tasks.
“It is natural to feel this way particularly because the pandemic is an unnatural event that has lasted much longer than anyone initially thought,” Cavallaro says. “The increased isolation has created an even greater need for stimulation and connection.”
One to two years of this “could significantly reduce your attentional capacity,” she adds.
People are also more easily distracted. “It’s all too easy to look at the phone, browse in a separate window, go run some errands or clean up the house,” Cavallaro says. “These tasks feel more stimulating or pressing as they grab your attention versus listening to a lecture, meeting or administrative tasks.”
A 2015 study from Boston’s VA healthcare system and Harvard University found sustained attention improves over time, peaking at age 43.
“It is likely that COVID fatigue is affecting age groups differently if we consider the lack of motivation for daily tasks in relation to attention spans,” Cavallaro says. “Children and young adults are going to have a harder time paying attention in school, adults are going to have a harder time completing work tasks as well as household chores and the elderly may appear to have increased memory issues, but you cannot recall what you have not paid attention to.”
In Russell’s mind, attention span isn’t something people need to try and “improve.”
“Entertainment by definition should be fun and enjoyable,” she says. “We find that consumers consume entertainment much like they consume food. Some like to nibble, others like to feast, some like to garnish – that is they are doing something else and the entertainment is in the background.”
If you do want to improve your attention span, Cavallaro recommends “healthy diet, regular exercise, meditation, and proper sleep hygiene.” Burwell suggests “therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness and grounding techniques (to) help center our mind and body to be fully present in the moment.”
And if strapping into a 2+ hour movie still tickles your fancy after the last two years, so be it.
Something to keep in mind:Awe makes us happier, healthier and humbler