The 5 Lane Freeway Mind

Current research has reinforced something i was teaching 7 years ago. Back in 1998, I used the concept of a 5 lane freeway to explain the new mindset. Children’s minds, I argued, are not a single track country road, but a “5 lane freeway”, geared up for multi-tasking and learning from the relationships between the media in those 5 lanes at the same time. The problem is not that their attention span is short, but rather than their attention span is broad. This is why they are bored with single media presentations.


Well, fast forward to 2005, and the people from Disney have paid for some research that came up with a 5.4 number, slightly more than my number . . . but who’s counting?

“Raised on more ”passive“ media, including TV, newspapers, radio and billboards, adults are content with linear entertainment experiences that unfold in a traditional story-like way. They are more patient (read: willing to wait in line) and, Lindstrom says, can cope with only about 1.7 channels of communication at once.

Children, by contrast, can simultaneously master 5.4 channels of communication (including surfing the Internet, text messaging and talking on the phone). They yearn for entertainment that is frenetic, multi-sensory and interactive.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Ben says:

    I’ve often wondered about this kind of thing. My 7-year-old son picks up new video games very easily and understands computers, while my mother-in-law still has trouble understanding where the page “went” when she minimized it.
    But I wonder if we sacrifice something in the long run by being so broad. Do we ever get as deep, then? Or is “going deep” even important? Is being broad just as good as being deep? Can you be both in a normal lifetime?

  • Scott says:

    Alice Hill on RealTechNews had a post last Thursday talking about a research study from Kansas State University that found that all the additional elements TV newscasts have added to their visuals (scrolling screens, sports scores, stock prices and current weather news, etc.) “[make] it more difficult for people to understand what the anchor is saying”, and that “when you have all of this stuff on the screen, people tend to remember about 10 percent fewer facts than when you don’t have it on the screen”.
    It seems to me this accurately describes only how adults raised in a context of “single media presentations” are affected by such visual stimuli.
    Speaking for myself: when I am at home relaxing I like to surf the internet with two or more windows open on three or more topics at the same time with the TV on also; sometimes I’ll be listening to some music on one headphone as well, but then my wife says “You can’t have everything!” and changes the channel to one of her liking. Oh, and throw IM in the mix — if I’m online at home, I’m usually signed in to AIM in addition to everything else.
    I said something similar in my comment on RealTechNews, but remember in Back to the Future 2 (and I looked up the script this time to get the quote right) when adult Marty comes home and flips on the TV and says “OK, I want channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87 and the Weather Channel”? For me that was a “wtfrick!” moment when I watched it years ago, but is that so ridiculous from today’s perspective?

  • adam says:

    which is why i never want to be an “adult” and perhaps why Jesus calls us to be like children.

  • Tim says:

    Wierd … I was having this exact same conversation with my wife last night.
    I’m 25 and would like to think that that takes me out of the ‘child’ bracket, but I love the 5 lane highway. I have scrolling news at the top of my screen, music or a podcast playing, something playing on the TV next to my monitor (usually a documentary or TV drama I like), my RSS reader open for the latest all important updates, using firefox to cruise some blogs and make random comments, an email or two open somewhere, often working on a post for my own blog and usually chatting to several people over MSN or AIM. Clearly I’m not doing all these at once, but it’s close.
    In response to the breadth or depth question, I think you can have both, just not at the same time. I wouldn’t say that just because a new generation has developed the capacity to deal with multiple inputs and outputs at the same time makes them incapable of going deep on any one thing. Personally I find it hard to go very deep on one thing while I’m doing five things at once, but if I need to focus deeply on something I can. At least I better be able to, I have a theology essay that needs to be writen and I’m pretty screwed if I can’t go deep on that! :-p

  • Mark says:

    My problem is not too many lanes but too little time! Can anyone else relate? 🙂

  • Damien says:

    Disney ey???!!!
    Finally – a source that people in my church will believe! 🙂 he he

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