There's a recurring theme in the media, and in conversations with members of older generations, and it goes something like this:
"Kids these days have no concentration span. They're always Twittering or texting or instant messaging, and they're always playing these loud, flashy computer games instead of settling down to listen to the radio or read a good book. Computer games and the internet are ruining our kids minds! Won't someone think of the children?"
Oddly enough, these criticisms are often associated with complaints that "kids will spend all hours of the day on the bloody internet or playing these damned games, instead of going outside and climbing trees or riding their bikes", although nobody seems to see the inherent contradiction there.
In a nutshell it's this: surely if these kids really had poor attention spans they'd get bored of the game in short order and move onto something else? And if they lacked the ability for delayed gratification how would they manage to spend hours unlocking every achievement in Soul Calibur or grinding for loot on World of Warcraft?
I've been thinking for a while that much of the perceived "reduction in attention span" is merely kids getting bored with an activity that has inadequate input bandwidth to satisfy them.
For example, my grandparents could sit and listen to the radio with their eyes shut for hours on end, but the pathetically slow drip... drip... drip of information through the radio would rapidly drive me to distraction. Even my parents have trouble doing this - they usually listen to the radio while also doing other things, like household chores or driving.
Likewise, my parents can sit and watch TV for hours on end, but even this eventually bores me - being forced into passively watching and waiting for programmes to get to the point or adverts to finish leaves my brain with too much spare capacity - I either start to over-analyse the content of the show and get annoyed by the perceived agenda, or I start to get fidgety and end up picking up a book or going and doing something more engaging.
Conversely I can browse the web, program or play computer games for hours on end, and observation of most younger people will bear out that this is the norm, rather than the exception. The problem here is clearly not attention-span, or I'd rapidly get bored of surfing or gaming just as I get bored of the radio or TV.
The problem here is that with radio and TV the rate information comes to me is slower, and is determined by an external source - the broadcaster.
Conversely, when I'm playing a game or surfing the web the information-flow is limited only by my ability to absorb it. Result: my attention is fully engaged, I don't get fidgety or bored, and I'm happy indefinitely.
Books are another telling case: personally I love reading, and most "short attention span" kids I know who have a good reading-speed can still sit and read books (surely the least instantly-gratifying and most boring-looking of all media) indefinitely. Their reading-speed matches or exceeds their information-absorption rate, so they're happy.
On the other hand, even "normal" kids I know who have a slow reading-speed get bored and restless after only minutes of reading - even though their information-absorption rate is low, it's still higher than their reading-speed can provide, so they get bored.
I've noticed this in my grandparents, parents and myself, and I'm just past 30. I'd be frankly gob-smacked if this didn't apply to kids who'd only grown up in a world of globally-networked computers, millions of channels, the web at their fingertips and ever-increasing amounts of data to sift through.
It also raises questions about the sudden and questionable upsurge in diagnoses of low-grade ADHD and related disorders in young people over the last few years. Although in the more serious cases these are undoubtedly very real disorders, it's entirely possible that at the lower end much of what the older generation (and psycho-pharmaceuticals industry) perceive as pathological behaviour is simply plain old frustrated boredom in minds adapted to faster and better information-processing than they're capable of.
In summary, I suspect this phenomenon has little to do with "short attention spans", and everything to do with old media (still largely aimed at the older generations) appearing frustratingly slow and boring to ever-more-agile minds raised in our ever-more-information-rich society.
If this is true, this phenomenon could actually be a good thing - our brains are getting faster and better at information-processing, so things which seemed fun to our slower, less-capable ancestors now seem un-stimulating, or no better than momentary diversions.
However, generations who found crocheting or games of "tag" or charades the most amazingly fun experience in their lives now have to watch kids try their cherished childhood hobbies before discarding them as boring, trivial or simplistic.
It's therefore understandable that they find it a lot more comforting to automatically decide there's something wrong with kids today (a refrain that echoes down through the generations)... rather than realise that their own brains are by comparison so poor at information-processing that activities that were stimulating to them as children are just too simple for kids these days.