Manufactured Distraction

glass-shardsLast week, as a hook into an economics lesson on globalization and trade, I played a short video called Shift Happens. The video uses a bunch of stats to illustrate how fast everything is changing. People change jobs with more frequency than ever. Students today may eventually work jobs that don’t even exist yet. We’re living in exponential times, the video asserts. In 1984 there were a thousand internet devices. In 1992 there were a million. In 2008 there were a billion. Twitter, founded in 2006, has nearly 330 million active monthly users. Facebook has 1.8 billion.

In class discussion afterward, we pointed out an ironic example of “shift” from the video itself. The video referred to Vine, a social media app for sharing 6 second video clips, as the “fastest growing app on the internet.” The video was made in 2013. Vine shut down two weeks ago.

The students then sat rapt, listening to my tale of growing up without social media. Facebook first popped up in 2004, my first year of college. You had to have a college email account. Each profile was static. No feeds or notifications. You had to click on someone to look at their profile.

The point in class was to get the students thinking about the need to be adaptable in a rapidly changing world.

The point for this blog post is that we’re entering uncharted psychological territory.

I’m happy I didn’t grow up with handheld internet and social media. It was enough to develop an identity in real life, without having to craft an online persona. I think I’m better off by learning to navigate awkward social situations without a handheld avoidance device to save me.

Ah, the good old days. Doesn’t every generation think something better about their own upbringing?

But there is something unique about this particular technological shift.

The average person looks at their handheld screen upwards of 75 times per day. The studies I found ranged from 60 per day to 90 per day, but each study had one finding in common: people’s estimates of the amount of times they looked at their phone were way smaller than the amount of times they actually looked at their phone when measured.

The average time period of each screen engagement was 30 seconds.

So basically, without being fully aware of it, we are interrupting ourselves every 15 minutes of our waking hours. Every 15 minutes we take a break for a 30 second burst of other stuff. Unpredictable bursts of exciting stuff. Kind of like a slot machine.

Never before has a technology or phenomenon systematically targeted the human attention span like that. Sustained concentration is necessary for all sorts of things. Thinking of solutions to difficult problems. Considering multiple perspectives. Checking yourself for bias or errors in judgement. Understanding something in depth. Self reflection. Imagination. Any human endeavor and all human culture is affected by this shift.

An experiment at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center looked at the effect of “likes” on the teenage brain. The researchers found that the reward centers of the brain lit up when made to believe that their post had many likes, compared to a dimmer response to just a few likes. Additionally, teens were significantly more likely to “like” another user’s picture when it had many likes to begin with, compared to the same picture with a small number of likes.

As a brain accustomed to a drug responds with reduced intensity to the natural pleasures of life, so too a brain accustomed to the dopamine bursts of online media may respond less actively to the deeper rewards of slower processing. Some of these reward bursts, according to UCLA researchers, may be influenced by the whims and herd mentality of other users.

In my own social media use, I started to have the horrifying realization that I was bending my experience into shareable bites. Trying to draw traffic to the blog, I thought to get more active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I would look at a sunset and wonder if it would make a good post. I would hear a news story, think of an insight, and then start to trim the thought down to try to make it fit into 140 snappy characters, hoping to make a splash on someone’s 30 second window of attention. Maybe get some likes.

The freeing realization was that I don’t care to compete for bursts of random attention. And I don’t care to put my attention on the chopping block.

I am currently making an intentional effort to reduce interruptions. So far, I’m finding that what seemed urgently important two weeks ago, really isn’t anymore. It hasn’t been about shunning technology, but about using it differently.

I will report back soon with further reflections on this effort.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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