The Continuous Partial Attention Generation

Via Cory comes this photo from Scott Macklin of his son and friends watching the Super Bowl last month:

There are several interesting things about this photo (spelled out in Cory’s post), and I now suspect the kid in the back may be the only one actually facing the television, but compare what “watching” looks like for this generation to what it looked like a few generations ago:


They are barely even related activities anymore. One is focused, intense audio/visual consumption, while the other is almost incidental exposure. Cinematic professionals must hate this.

I still try to keep digital distractions to a minimum when I’m watching a favorite show or sporting event, but I feel like that is rapidly becoming an attitude of the past. How short will our attention spans get before we realize that this may be a problem? Or is the problem imaginary and our brains will adjust or even thrive under these new circumstances?

8 comments on “The Continuous Partial Attention Generation”. Leave your own?
  1. Jay says:

    To be fair, it’s the Super Bowl. 12 minutes of content, packed into three and a half hours. No televised program is more egregiously contemptuous of its viewers’ time and attention. Is it any wonder that viewers repay this indifference in kind?

  2. Mike D. says:

    That’s a good point, which also leads to another question: was there any game action even going on when this was taken? Maybe it was during the halftime show… who knows. Either way, this sort of body language definitely exists more now than it ever has. The percentage of time my fianceé is actually watching the screen when we are taking in a TV show is probably in the single digits. It’s annoying. :)

  3. Chris Hester says:

    I am not of the mobile/cell phone plus internet since birth generation, so I cannot relate to how anyone can ‘watch’ TV whilst tweeting or checking emails at the same time. I guess many have their laptops open too (or now, iPads) so they can keep checking Facebook. Plus no one in your photo will be talking to each other about what’s on, they’ll be glued to their screens. Ah well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Chris (47 years of age).

  4. Rhys Thomas says:

    I watched the Superbowl here in the UK on commercial TV and couldn’t believe the quantity of ads. Every time you had one we had some talking heads recapping the three minutes of game we’d just seen. I think this contributes to peoples lack of attention span but not necessarily in a bad way. Why concentrate on the commercials when you can be doing something productive instead?
    Having said that my housemate is attached to his mobile phone like it’s a limb and spends so much time tweeting what is on TV, that he has no clue what’s on TV. My enjoyment of any show is ruined by him asking what just happened and it is annoying.

  5. Tyler says:

    I love watching a game with my phone and my peoples. Better experience. I don’t check it during game action, though. Football is built for this.

    My Twitter follows are a nice cross-section of actual sports journalists, bloggers, friends, and local musicians, and it’s > ads.

    Livetweeting something with a plot doesn’t appeal to me at all, though, probably because I don’t watch shows live.

  6. Jason says:

    Reminds me of the “Technology Loop” skit in Portlandia:

  7. The Fiancée says:

    While I totally understand what you’re talking about regarding attention spans, etc, you neglect to mention that your fiancée can, by your own admission, fully follow whatever show you both happen to be watching while she’s consuming other media. -Often better than you can when you’re fully tuned in.
    I do think that attention spans are shrinking, but looking at your computer while watching TV is hardly what’s causing the problem. I can hear my parents laughing while we talk about being distracted from our TV’s, when to them, TV’s *were* the distraction.
    Our generation has come to think of TV watching as a form of social interaction, or even a semi intellectual pursuit, and it’s really not.
    Show me a picture of a bunch of kids reading, or playing a board game with their phones in their faces. There aren’t any A. because kids don’t do enough of that stuff anymore and B. things like keeping track of whose turn it is, calculating their next move and how many points they should get for it takes up too much of their minds to be texting and FBing. Don’t expect TV to take up people’s entire minds. It’s just TV.

  8. Mike D. says:

    Tyler: Yep… the thing that’s not clear from the photo is at what stage the game is in. Is it a commercial? Great, text away. Cory’s original post made it sound like this is how these kids watch the whole game though. If that’s true, that’s the weird part for me. If not, no big.

    The Fiancée: Yes, it is definitely true that you comprehend more with 10% of your attention than I do with 90% of mine. That is part of why it’s annoying, but I hardly blame you for that. It’s just a skill you have. The annoying part is that on a macro scale, it seems like more and more people find it perfectly acceptable to whip out a cell phone to check their Facebook wall or their Instagram account or their Draw Something match during dinner, during movies, or during other times when everyone else just sharing their company. Watching TV might not be at the top of the list whereas the dinner table might be (as far as offensiveness goes) but when people get used to always thinking about “something else” no matter what they are doing, that’s bad.

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