by August 6, 2013 • 2:12 pm
The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.
I’m a heavy social media user. It’s the lion’s share of my job as an online content producer and social media marketing analyst. Yet as I sit back and look at myself and my habits, and observe others in my personal sociological studies (read: subtly spying on people in cafes), I can’t help but wonder: “Is our ability to pay attention dying?”
Without any true scientific research on my part, I can say yes, for myself and a lot of my peers. But rest assured—actual scientist Dr. Larry Rosen and his team agree. To make it even scarier, their information is based on studies not of adults, like me, but of nearly 300 middle-school, high-school and university students.
What they found will make you rethink everything you do online.
“Students of all ages were able to focus and stay on task for an average of only three minutes before being distracted.” This is just one finding. There are plenty more.
Three minutes is not a lot of time. Certainly not enough time for sufficient study. But it is enough time to check Facebook and email and get a “hit” (believe me, I didn’t use the word “user” in the first sentence by accident). Recovering from that “hit” takes time and energy, too, so we’re really talking about concentrating for three minutes, then being distracted for at least five more.
As the mother of a 13-year-old, this alarms me. The years from 8th through 12th grade and into college are the most difficult of a student’s life. Harder classes and heavier workloads all require more and sustained concentration for students to really be successful.
So it’ll probably surprise no one that Dr. Rosen found students who checked Facebook even once during a 15-minute study period had a lower GPA. Now, Facebook didn’t necessarily cause their lowered GPA, but social media in general was a marker for poorer school performance.
This is certainly bad news for kids. But what’s social media doing to the rest of us, the supposed grownups? Well, for starters, if I had any of my social media channels open right now, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I have to close them all so I can concentrate. And my phone must be on Do Not Disturb. Without these (learned-the-hard-way) habits, I’d be Hammy, from Over the Hedge, all day long. And I’m 40. Imagine what this would be like if my prefrontal cortex were only 14.
So here’s my—a social media professional’s—big, dirty secret: I have to close social media to focus on social media.
So what’s this mean for all of us, in general? Do we need to quit using social media or run the risk of becoming a society of people who can’t even finish a sentence? Is it going to ruin our lives? Articles such as this recent one would have us believe the answer is yes. It concerns a grandfather who took his own life reportedly because he wasn’t able to compete with smartphones and media for his grandchildren’s attention. But blaming the existence of social media for his—and all our—ills is sensationalistic (as I’m sure the authors hoped) and, frankly, not helping us truthfully examine its effect on our well-being. Obviously, in this poor man’s case, he was facing larger, more complex issues, such as his feeling like he “couldn’t do anything right,” whether it involved social media or not.
The real answer to whether or not social media will ruin our lives is no. It’s an amazing, world-changing communications tool that isn’t going away and that can make our lives better—if we choose. The thing to remember is that it’s for communication—just as were smoke signals, the telegraph and the telephone—so people can connect. So what kinds of connections do we really want to have? Ones that last only three minutes, before we’re on to the next thing?
As a Gen X’er, I’m supposed to adapt to this tool the younger generation has created, but the thing is, I was using social media 20 years ago, before it had a name. We called Twitter “chat rooms,” and Facebook was a forum or listserv we could join, without all the bells and whistles. I created my first email address in 1991. Social media marketing was called “marketing,” and no one talked about “digital PR” until the new millennium.
What’s so different now, then? Having seen two decades of changes, I’d have to say the combination of Internet and mobile devices has certainly made access easier for people, but it’s made life harder.
We’ve let constant access, the constant possibility of pinging the pleasure centers of our brains, to rob us of being in control.
What can we do? Well, you’d think the solution would be more complicated, but it’s not: I’m a firm believer in the technology break Dr. Rosen discusses, and as my social media friends and blog readers know, I’ve been spending more and more time these last few months disconnecting from social media for long stretches, often a couple days at a time. And guess what? The world didn’t end. And I still got my work done. Probably even better work, truth be told.
Kids in particular need these breaks. Technology bans don’t solve issues, they just let us avoid them. Because as I said and as we all know: social media ain’t goin’ anywhere. We need to model healthy behavior, prepare kids for reality, since teaching is way more effective than preaching. Just as we show kids how to make healthy decisions in all aspects of life—eating, sleeping, enjoying a wine or beer without being slave to it. And no matter how lame kids may think Mom and Dad are, I’ve seen time and again with my own son and with other kids in my life that they pay attention to what we do. Careful attention. They may not appreciate the effect right now, but rest assured, they need to see it now in order to do it when they’re adults.
We must not let social media become our full-on way of life. Rather, we need to remember, and remind our kids and each other, that it’s a tool we use to enhance our lives. To connect with people we can’t see all the time, and to make possible real-life interactions with really great folks we wouldn’t have met otherwise. (Just ask my husband—he met me in an Internet chat room. True story.) And to recognize when it’s detracting from our lives. Our real lives. Remember those?
What concerns me most about constant connection is when people forget real life happening around them. They’re too busy looking at a small screen to see the real world. Frankly, it’s easier to be there, on the news feed, in the inbox. You don’t have to deal with the messiness of real life there.
But the messiness of real life is what creates beautiful memories and makes dealing with the messiness worthwhile. It’s tangible, it’s tactile, it leaves an impression that we’ll soon forget if we only experience life in 180-second bursts, on a screen. I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want that for me.
Photo used with permission of Karen Roe, from her wonderful 2012 photographs of the British Telecom (BT) Artboxes project