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Attention span is the amount of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. Most educators and psychologists agree[citation needed] that the ability to focus one's attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of one's goals.


Length of the span

Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.

  • Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimuli that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds.[1] This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
  • Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes, but a person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing.[1] This ability to renew attention permits people to "pay attention" to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.

Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.[2]

For time-on-task measurements, the type of activity used in the test affects the results, as people are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating.[1] Attention is also increased if the person is able to perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task. Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce time on task. Common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task range from about five minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults.[1]

After losing attention from a topic, a person may restore it by taking a rest, doing a different kind of activity, changing mental focus, or deliberately choosing to re-focus on the first topic.

Measurement of attention span

Many different tests for attention span have been used in different populations and in different times. Some tests measure short-term, focused attention abilities (which is typically normal in people with ADHD), and others provide information about how easily distracted the test-taker is (typically a significant problem in people with ADHD). Tests like the DeGangi's Test of Attention in Infants (TAI) and Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-III (WISC-III) are commonly used to test for attention-related issues in young children when interviews and observations are inadequate.[3] Older tests, like the Continuous Performance Test and the Porteus Maze Test, have been rejected by some experts.[3] These tests are typically criticized as not actually measuring attention, or as being inappropriate for some populations, or as not providing clinically useful information.

Variability in test scores can be produced by small changes in the testing environment.[3] For example, test-takers will usually remain on task for longer periods of time if the examiner is visibly present in the room than if the examiner is absent.

Effects of temperament

In an early study of attention span, the mothers of 232 pairs of twins were interviewed periodically about the similarities and differences in behavior displayed by their twins during infancy and early childhood. The results showed that each of the behavioral variables (temper frequency, temper intensity, irritability, crying, and demanding attention) had a significant inverse relationship with attention span. In other words, the twin with longer attention span was better able to remain absorbed in a particular activity without distraction, and was also the less temperamental twin.[4]

Historical differences

Some authors, such as Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, believe that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases.

One study of 2600 children found that early exposure to television (around age two) is associated with later attention problems such as inattention, impulsiveness, disorganization, and distractibility at age seven.(however is contestable by many scientists today). [5][6] This uncontrolled observational study is not able to determine whether viewing television increases attention problems in children, or if children who are naturally prone to inattention are disproportionately attracted to the stimulation of television at young ages, or if there is some other factor, such as parenting skills, associated with this finding.

Internet browsing may have a similar effect because it enables users to easily move from one page to another. Most internet users spend less than one minute on the average website.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Dianne Dukette; David Cornish (2009). The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team. RoseDog Books. pp. 72-73. ISBN 1-4349-9555-0. 
  2. ^ Ruff, H. A. & Lawson, K. R. (1990). Development of sustained, focused attention in young children during free play. Developmental Psychology, 26, 85-93.
  3. ^ a b c Caroline Lindsey; Dwivedi, Kedar Nath; Harper, Peter C. (2004). Promoting The Emotional Well-being Of Children And Adolescents And Preventing Their Mental Ill Health: A Handbook. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pp. 87-92. ISBN 1-84310-153-X. 
  4. ^ Wilson, R. S., Brown, A. M., & Matheny, A. P. Jr. (1971). Emergence and Persistence of Behavioral Differences in Twins. Child Development, 42, 1381-1398.
  5. ^ Christakis, D. A., Zimmerman, F. J., DiGiuseppe, D. L., & McCarty, C. A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113, 708-713.
  6. ^ Editorial from The Washington Times Retrieved October 23, 2008.
  7. ^ Turning into digital goldfish, BBC News article on how the internet affects attention span. 22 February, 2002. Retrieved October 23, 2008.


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