Unlike the brain-eating zombies in intense action movies, a classroom of zombies refers to students who struggle to engage and pay attention in class. From Facebook to Twitter to YouTube, the “big three” of social media have dominated the twenty-first century- that is, until now. While all three platforms have seen a considerable amount of online traffic since their initial rise of usage in 2006, Facebook was the most popular until YouTube’s usage shot up in 2018. However, Generation Z– those born between 1997 and 2012 and who are currently considered “college-age”– has been drawn to platforms that require a shorter attention span. In light of this generational shift in platforms, we find the emergence of a “new big three”- Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok. Instagram, released in 2010, was the first of these platforms to be introduced. The platform is similar to Facebook, allowing users to post content and create a feed of pictures and videos to share with friends. The content shared was relatively permanent, yet allowed users to take down content at will, until they released the “story” feature in 2016. This feature is similar to how Snapchat, released in 2011, operated and allowed users to make temporary posts that disappear after 24 hours. In 2016 Tik Tok was released. This platform allowed users to make short videos that could be shared in a similar way to Instagram posts. All three of these social media platforms require a short attention span and allow users to conveniently consume content quickly.
A study conducted in 2019 found that the increased production and consumption of short-form social media content has led to shorter attention spans among users because these users are investing more of their limited attention resources into these platforms. Younger generations tend to be the top content-consumers on the “new big three” social media sites, thus these are the individuals who have likely seen the most decrease in attention spans. Coupled with long classes and hours of homework each night, students of all ages have seen an overall drop in GPAs. Many instructors have not adapted their teaching methods to accommodate this decrease in attention spans among Generation Z students, thus these students may be struggling to maintain engagement with course materials.
As an undergraduate, GenZ student, I’ve noticed a sharp decrease in my ability to concentrate for long periods of time. I struggle most in the courses that lecture for the entirety of the class period– especially the ones that assign several chapters of reading each night. Like many others my age, I use social media quite frequently. I enjoy scrolling through the Tik Tok explore page, which uses an algorithm to show content that may interest the user. Since I started using the platform in late 2019, I’ve found that it gets more and more difficult to concentrate– especially for long periods of time. Recently, I’ve noticed that I struggle to concentrate on even the brief content posted to Tik Tok. Rather than watching a full video on the platform, whether it be 15-seconds or the newly updated 1-3 minutes, I find myself scrolling quickly past several videos until one catches my attention. Designing courses using brief attention-grabbing discussions, thus, could be the key to navigating classes with shorter attention spans effectively.
While social media may have contributed significantly to the waning attention spans of students, it is also part of the solution. Engaging students in the material being taught is crucial for understanding what concepts mean and how they are applicable to the world outside of school. Social media is a key attention-grabbing tool because it draws interest and represents deviation from teaching norms. Application of social media can range from showing posts in lectures to asking students to create memes based on class material to making contemporary references while teaching.
One of my professors this semester at Virginia Tech, Dr. Itchuaqiyaq, is a prime example of adapting teaching methods to meet the needs of students. Her philosophy, that teachers should not lecture for the entire duration of the class, promotes group work and other engaging activities that allow the application of learned material to real world situations. One of our recurring assignments, meme creation, allows students to creatively apply class material about social justice issues to a familiar format. This has been one of my favorite assignments because it’s fun and entertaining, but still helps my understanding of the concepts learned in class. I’ve found that I am able to understand the material taught in Dr. Itchuaqiyaq’s class more effectively than my lecture-focused classes because the constant variety of activities holds my attention and helps me understand concepts outside of the classroom.
All in all, the “new big three” have posed a detrimental issue with waning attention spans in students. While we cannot necessarily reverse the damage done, we can adapt. Instructors can change their teaching styles towards becoming more engaging to accommodate the shifting attention span of students. Incorporating activities such as group work, creation of social media media related assignments, and reducing lecture time could increase teaching and learning efficiency. However, not all the responsibility falls onto instructors. For their part, students can attempt to limit time spent on social media sites and actively engage with the activities created by instructors. The solution is not one sided. Students and instructors have an equal responsibility to optimize the learning experience. Social media may be the problem, but it is also one of the answers.
Being in my 80’s and far from Gen Z, the ideas and observations presented seem as relevant to my generation as they do today. I grew up in England and remember the boredom of learning history as a list of dates I could have accessed in seconds if Google had existed and which have been of no use to me in my scientific career. During my academic life I taught Chemistry 101 to students at Harvard and Oxford universities and remember the eyelids closing half way through my hour-long lectures. From Tori’s article I realize that I, and most other tutors like me, could have been more effective using the ideas she presents even without the media tools available today.. ps For full disclosure I am Tori’s Grandfather and very proud of her accomplishments.