Attention Capacity Research In Television

For this week’s blog task we had to design a short task that would examine the attention capacity of a family member or friend, relative to our own.

Watching TV : Stock Photo
Source: GettyImages

Attention Test

To do this I sat down with my 16-year-old sister and watched an episode of Suits. This is a show that I like to watch but Paige does not.

To measure our attention capacities I had my laptop open and digitally tallied every time Paige or I looked away from the TV to our phones, or laptop, or to food (Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater, 2008).

Image result for watching suits
Source: Pinterest/SuitsFandom


These were the results:

Paige: 25

Tayla: 16

Now the reasons for these results are quite interesting.

Obviously one factor is that I like the show Suits, and Paige does not, so naturally I wanted to pay more attention to it than she did.

I wanted to know what would happen in this episode; what would happen to the characters and the development of the plot.

Paige was roped in with the bribe of cupcakes and being the best sister ever. Paige did not want to watch Suits because of the dramatic events that surrounded the life of a fake-lawyer, she watched it just because I asked her to.

Which is why at the beginning of the episode she was for the majority on her phone. However what she was doing on her phone also contributed to further instances of attention deficit (Loechner, 2016).

Image result for on phone watching tv
Source: mspy

I noticed that Paige would look down at her phone every moment or so at the start of the episode; as soon as it lit up. This was because she was messaging someone. Thus the prolonged contact with another person over media constantly took her attention away from the television (Cesar, Bulterman and Jansen, n.d.).

Once the conversation ended Paige’s attention grew more focused on Suits (Cesar, Chorianopoulos and Jensen, 2008).

I experienced a similar thing with myself. Engrossed as I was with the new episode of Suits, the distraction of having my laptop open grew too much at certain stages of the 40min episode.

A person I had messaged earlier today decided that that was the time to respond to my question, which then created a dialogue between us, and just like Paige, further instances of distraction.

Once that conversation had ended I was able to fully refocus on the the show.

Caucasian watching television on sofa : Stock Photo
Source: GettyImages

Food was another distraction. Halfway through the show Paige grew hungry and went to the kitchen for food and water, then when she returned, half her attention was on the show, and the other half was on getting the doughnut to go in her mouth, and not on her face.

Thus attention was lost again.

Once I closed my Facebook on my laptop, leaving only the page I was tallying on open, it was much easier to focus solely on the show… and Paige.

Lack of Reflexvity

For this was the struggle of playing participant and researcher simultaneously. Should I have counted every time that I noticed Paige was not paying attention? And should I have included the times that I was tallying on my laptop as a lapse from the television (Carolan, 2003)?

As it stands I did not include those moments in my final numbers. I felt as if my role as researcher was separate to my role as participant. But it isn’t really is it (Sikes, 2013)?

I did not show reflexivity in this research, as I am not including my distractions as a researcher in my findings.

Paige’s Experience

For Paige this test was boring and fairly long. It was 40mins of watching a show she does not watch and having her sister stare creepily over her shoulder to check if she is on her phone.

She admitted at the end of the test that the fact that she was aware of my observation changed the potential outcomes (MacNeill et al., 2016).

As Paige knew that I was looking to see how many times she went on her phone, she tried not to go on her phone as much; bar the conversation she had at the start.

Teenage looking at cellphone and playing with her hair : Stock Photo
Source: GettyImages

However, she then realised that she did not care how many times I tallied up, and proceeded to go on her phone as she wished.

Towards the end of the episode she became sleepy and struggled to keep her eyes open, let alone go on her phone.


Overall it is clear that the attention capacity of a person is heavily reliant upon many different factors (Parasuraman, Nestor and Greenwood, 1989).

These factors include:

  • Quality of content realtive to the individual’s personal prefernce
  • Whether the individual is in an online conversation
  • The level of alertness for the individual
  • The reason for viewing

In conclusion, if a person wants to watch something that they like, they will try to pay attention despite any distractions from technology, as I did. But if you force someone to pay attention to something that do not like, they will more than likely leave their attention to wander.

Father and son watching sports in living room : Stock Photo
Source: GettyImages


Carolan, M. (2003). Reflexivity: a personal journey during data collection. Nurse Researcher, 10(3), pp.7-14.

Cesar, P., Bulterman, D. and Jansen, A. (n.d.). Usages of the Secondary Screen in an Interactive Television Environment: Control, Enrich, Share, and Transfer Television Content. Changing Television Environments, pp.168-177.

Cesar, P., Chorianopoulos, K. and Jensen, J. (2008). Social television and user interaction. Computers in Entertainment, 6(1), p.1.

Loechner, T. (2016). Pay Attention To This: TV Engages People Half As Long As Digital, Nielsen Lab Study Finds. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Sep. 2016].

MacNeill, V., Foley, M., Quirk, A. and McCambridge, J. (2016). Shedding light on research participation effects in behaviour change trials: a qualitative study examining research participant experiences. BMC Public Health, 16(1).

Marie Evans Schmidt, and Elizabeth A. Vandewater, (2008). Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement. The Future of Children, 18(1), pp.63-85.

Parasuraman, R., Nestor, P. and Greenwood, P. (1989). Sustained-attention capacity in young and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 4(3), pp.339-345.

Sikes, P. (2013). Autoethnography. London: SAGE Publications.



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