Girl on a phone alone
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The fight for attention

Girl on a phone alone
Too much time trying to connect can hamper our ability to thrive when alone Creative Commons CC0 license

In efforts to stop people ignoring red lights and walking to their deaths in front of cars, trains and trams, cities in Australia, Germany and Holland have installed lights on footpaths. And in Belgium and China, cities are trialling pedestrian lanes for people using phones.

In the US in 2015, 442 fatal crashes were reported to have involved cell phone use as a distraction (14% of all fatal distraction-affected crashes).

“Texting while driving is especially dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction. Sending or reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds, long enough to cover a football field while driving at 55 mph.Centres for Disease control and prevention

Although a 2015 Pew research poll found that 95% of Americans do not consider it OK to use a cell-phone at a meeting, it’s not uncommon to see people in meetings scrolling through emails or social media feeds. Even if people using digital devices in meetings are paying attention and perhaps taking notes, it’s a guessing game and can be unnerving. In schools where increasing numbers of students are using digital devices in class, teachers are also grappling with the ‘are they paying attention and on task’ dilemma.

However, it’s not just our attention to traffic and colleagues that our insatiable appetite for screens is impairing. At a café the other day I watched as two toddlers clambered from seat to seat around their table with ever increasing speed. Their mother was oblivious. She was completely focused on her phone, only lifting her head to take an occasional mouthful of food. What extremes, I wondered, would they need to go to to get their mother’s attention?

What is the price we pay as individuals and societies for devoting so much of our time and attention to the technology competing for our attention?

Our sense of security in ourselves and in our relationships with others is formed (but can be shifted later through peer and love relationships or therapy) in early childhood. Babies need a care- giver who provides consistent, loving attention to develop a healthy secure attachment style. While our language and emotional skills develop through interactions with caregivers who comfort us, respond and chat to us, look at us, read aloud to us, delight and share the world with us.

Time magazine reported on a study published in Translational Psychiatry that showed distracted parental ( the study used rats) attention could have a negative effect on babies’ development.

“In this case, the lack of consistent, repetitive and reliable attention appeared to affect the animals’ ability to develop proper emotional connections to help them understand pleasure.”

The architect or our intimacies

For 30 years Sheryl Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT has explored our relationship with technology and believes that “technology has become the architect of our intimacies.”

Author of books including Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation- The Power of Talk in a Digital Age she believes we now use technology to control how close we allow ourselves to get to one another, which she calls the Goldilocks effect:

“Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right”.

In her Ted talk Connected but alone she laments our flight from conversation because it compromises our capacity for self-reflection.

“For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development…These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device…”

So what do we do to feel more connected? we share.

The problem with this new regime of ‘I share therefore I am’ is that, if we don’t have connection, we don’t feel like ourselves. We almost don’t feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.”

It’s no surprise then that the issue of loneliness is an issue among swathes of society. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation in the UK completed a study that found loneliness to be a greater concern among 18 to 34-year-olds than the elderly.

There is no denying that technology has brought many benefits. But, how did we let technology infiltrate every strata of our life so quickly? Like teenagers we gave barely a thought to possible long term consequences.

How did we get so hooked onto screens?

The business of persuasion

Tristan Harris, founder of the organisation Time Well Spent,  is well versed in the tech industry’s methods to persuade us to interact with our technology and likens our phones to slot machines.

“… Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get? Every time I check my email, I’m playing the slot machine, saying, “What am I going to get?” Every time I scroll a news feed, I’m playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get next? And the thing is that, again, knowing exactly how this works — and I’m a designer, I know exactly how the psychology of this works, I know exactly what’s going on — but it doesn’t leave me with any choice, I still just get sucked into it.”

And sucked into it we are. Research firm dscout reported the average mobile user touches ( types, swipes or taps) their phone 2,617 times every day. Extreme users touch their phones more than 5,400 times a day.

So what can we do about it?

Harris is committed to working with the tech industry to design ‘better tech to protect us from distraction, which uses as a success metric ‘net positive contribution to human life.’ In this interview with Sam Harris, he reminds us to be mindful when we use technology. To think about the army of about 1000 people who sit behind our screens with the job of getting us to click or swipe and engage.

Solitude, role modelling and conversation

Role modelling our own behaviour with screens is one way of helping children become more mindful of technology use.

Turkle suggests we make time for solitude at work and at home, where it’s important we also demonstrate it as a value to our children.

You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments.”

“…Now we all need to focus on the many, many ways technology can lead us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities, our own politics, our own planet. They need us.”

Image: Girl on a phone by Andrew Loke CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


2 thoughts on “The fight for attention”

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