The War On Our Attention Spans
Whether it is through endless notifications, messaging applications, or chronic social media use, smartphones are undoubtedly diminishing our attention spans. As this trend is normalized, we are becoming gradually oblivious to the fact that our attention is not only limited, but precious to our mental health and well-being.
Smartphones have evolved to offer a multitude of audiovisual functions previously unavailable for consumption in a single portable device. That is also why increasing use of these gizmos is potentially pernicious and invasive to our neural chemistry, in ways that are possibly unfathomable at the moment.
Most smartphone users may not think of themselves as addicts. In the aggregate, however, users are developing a growing dependency on such devices, with some estimates indicating average smartphone use clocking in at over 4 hours a day. Even some programmers and developers in Silicon Valley understand that excessive exposure to the smartphone ecosystem should be restricted for children, largely because they consciously pioneered the backbone of its addictive nature.
This is not only a matter of being hooked on phones. The actual worth of what we are consuming is also being affected. The internet has upended the traditional media and entertainment industries, not least because our massively diffuse attention has dissected and unbundled their flagship experiences. In a world of “listicles”, binge-watching shows, and streaming playlists, we are also unable to read a lengthy news piece, sit through an entire movie at the theater, or even listen to a music album in its entirety without some kind of smartphone distraction threatening to break our concentration.
What then of artistry or creativity, constantly struggling with the pressures of commercial commodification? Erratic attention spans are challenging them on a whole another level.
This is why we should not lose sight of emphasizing attention as a finite, valuable resource in each day, especially since it is ultimately composed of time, money, and energy. After all, how we utilize our attention is an integral part of our mood and overall behavior.
Parents, educators, and employers all have the responsibility to transmit a better awareness of how being bombarded with irrelevant information, pointless distractions, and spontaneous busywork is detrimental to our focus. Once this becomes a routine, we are much more vulnerable to being psychologically manipulated or taken advantage of, particularly in our lapses of decision fatigue.
Much like we used to be advised to limit our exposure to television, these conversations should be just as important as those regarding ethics, privacy, and trust, especially when we will be dealing with the coming reality of neurotechnology and its influence in people’s thought processes.
Mental health is not to be taken lightly, and we should hold focus to a similar standard. As the prevalence of data becomes exponentially greater in our lives, the capacity to filter will become more important than ever before. We must remember that these days, “quality over quantity” often means choosing coherence over scatter.
It should not be unrealistic to introduce some of these principles to our own behavior; for example, encouraging reasonable smartphone etiquette in homes, schools, and workplaces (and yes, there are apps for that). Mindfulness, exercise, and live social interactions should also serve as opportunities for not looking constantly at a smartphone screen.
Personal boundaries matter, and smartphones are no excuse to have others choose them for you. Thankfully, technology can also help us enforce those limits, and make a little more sense of the things that are truly worthy of our finite, valuable attention.