There is a great deal of conversation about the addictiveness of Facebook in particular, among all of Earth's inhabitants who call Facebook their social home. But beyond Facebook, a growing (physical) attachment to devices is 'epidemic'.
Welcome to the 21st Century! Now we are all connected, popping up with our likes and interests on our friends' Androids, iPhones, iPads and B-Berries. How does our experience differ?
DEVICES. We love them or hate them. Some don't even notice or pay much attention to the hardware. Some live and breathe life tethered to a device. "It's all about the Apps". And lifestyle. Friends? There's an app for that. Just follow our focus, minute by minute - where does it go? 'Devices'. Where to charge? What to download? What to condense into a tweet? Checking texts, checking Facebook, checking in on Foursquare or responding to Facebook's asking, 'What's happening?', or 'What's on your mind?' - all via our trusty device. Are they our tools still, or have they become our master?
And, you might ask, what about the telephone? Of course today's 'devices' may have begun as 'phones', but today not every generation enjoys talking on the telephone, some having strong preferences for texting/SMS/videochat, while still others routinely work and communicate from old-fashioned computers with keyboards and monitors.
[See this report
on generational differences.]
Freud spoke of people becoming 'neurotic' due to internal battles and spoke of 'hysterical conversion', a process through which people externalize their symptoms or dramatize unconscious drives while seemingly remaining unaware of their 'projection', 'symptom displacement', etc.
All ways to fend off evil thoughts or memories. To repress, suppress, or leak
And today, who has time or focus for thinking or memorizing? Eight seconds or 140 characters maximum attention span. It's the rule.
Do we have any? Do we - a large chunk of our collective society - have any ability to pay attention? Is our attention span sufficient to take us beyond simply noticing things momentarily, long enough to see and buy from ads fed to us on our tracking devices based on our location? Are we a better customer or voter when we can no longer focus longer than just enough to send a quick text with an emoji? Is there ever any expectation or mindfulness of our shrunken focus, in this age where we can never escape constant overstimulation amid a stream of beeps and data and messages?
Will we somehow be able to get back or retain or re-train our natural gifts as human beings - things like 'attention span', 'focus' or reasoning? Real-time face-to-face collaboration without digital distraction or dependency... Can we focus, us clever humans, on anything, without the need or demand of distraction? Longer than, say, a goldfish? Apparently not, according to a large-scale research study by Microsoft, in North America (Canada). While positing a'140 millisecond attention span' (to accompany our 140 character standard for 'writing' and make the point) turns out to be slightly inaccurate, it's actually not that far off. Specifically, the study noted the prevalence of 140-character 'reading/writing', but found a slightly longer ability to actively focus and concentrate (attention/working memory). Almost as focused as a goldfish.
It turns out that among the 1000's of people in this recent study, attention is limited to approximately 8 seconds, one second less than the attention span of a goldfish! Some - those not completely absorbed by their devices, and able to look around at the many others who are - will not be surprised by this, while most no longer have the desire or ability to think about it. (As George Harrison asked, 'are you one of them?') This is very good news - for the frenetic sales of devices and plans, and things that pop up on the tiny screens of our ubiquitous devices, be it a 'smart phone' or phablet/tablet or watch. Have you ever seen people constantly checking their watch when it delivers only the time? What if it delivered every aspect of your life to you, while driving, in a movie theater, home alone, or at work? No matter that people still buy big-screen 'devices' for movies or television, or that work tasks often require large-screen monitors and computers. Still, many will be attending to their own devices constantly, as well?
Refraining (here) from getting too deep into the physiological and psychological aspects - or the myth that 'multi-tasking' helps either productivity or accuracy, or the issues of changing focus socially and commercially - suffice it to say that from the perspective of an outside observer - say, space aliens, or the rare human who has not surrendered to the always-on screens described by Orwell but refined by Facebook and location-based marketers - there are hordes of people who are attached 24/7 to devices, everywhere and every place. Look around (and congratulations if you've actually read this whole sentence!) What was a world with communication tools 'a la carte' (telephone, radio, telegraph, computer-based chat) and entertainment options (including larger-than-3 inch screens, actual real life (swimming, sports, bowling, art, literature) is now a world shaped and marketed by device makers and all their sycophants. Television 'news' typically reports what is 'trending' (2nd hand reports) and then asks us to 'like' it. The point is, no longer is a 'mobile' phone just a phone. It is our master, just like the 1990's joke about computers and Internet. No longer do we all use devices electively or selectively. For some, the device is literally, like an external brain, heart, and more. It is a lifeline, a text/photo sharing device, music/video giver, unlimited, 'free and easy' means for instant gratification (socially and otherwise), and center of many people's universe. ('Where's a charger?') It can even be a 'love object', or a substitute for one. (Freud's notions of cathexis and displacement are relevant; more on this below.)
It is easy to observe 'addiction' (in the sense of watching people without their beloved devices for more than 8 seconds of awareness exhibit behavior not unlike 'withdrawal') or 'compulsive' attention to 'the device'. It is also easy to see (for those with the inclination and ability to pay attention) the major 'social' shift towards 'the device' as the basis for all of our remaining attention and focus. It brings friends (real and imagined). Sharing. Validation. Games with which to 'kill time'. A means to project, improve, or invent an image. Plus tons of 'interest based' and 'location based' advertising, despite paid subscriptions. (Once upon a time, people subscribed to cable TV to avoid commercial ads/adverts. Now we pay to both receive ads, and be ads!) Language has rapidly 'evolved' to reflect device-based life, and popular culture has 'gotten with the program' of providing 'news' and entertainment based on the knowledge that the typical viewer/reader has - literally - 'the attention span of a goldfish'. What has device-based life wrought, with just one device attached as an appendage, promising all things to all people? Concentration is becoming rare. No processing necessary. Just hit a button and move on to the next screen. Remember to send a text to the family or boss from time to time. Devices have become all consuming, mana from heaven, one-stop shopping for everything, all the time, any time. Just don't ask people to focus on anything longer than a goldfish does. Is that O.K.?
Human vs. Goldfish Attention Span (Hint: The Goldfish wins!)
This is the initial report in Canada's Globe and Mail (11 May 2015).
These findings spawned numerous re-reports and memes, and no doubt people may chuckle and move on. While initially presented by Microsoft as a study oriented towards better understanding consumers' attention span, the take-away extended far beyond the finding that very brief presentations may better engage the digitally immersed consumer. Why? Because this study of over 2000 adults found an average attention span of 8 seconds, one less second of focus/attention than exhibited by a goldfish. Implications? Is this a good trend, catering to attention spans of goldfish rather than requiring 1/2 minute of actual concentration and processing? While advertisers and 'news' shows may take note and adjust, others may find some cause for concern with humans' willing surrender of attention span to the convenience of quick, always-on, digital streams. So...is this OK?
Here is the story as picked up and the findings as distilled by USA Today (and sounding quite like this page, above!) .
"In our age of buzzing phones and 140-character news items, they say, the Canadian attention span has dropped from an average of 12 seconds in 2000 to the jittery low of eight seconds today. The average goldfish, it's believed, can concentrate for nine, researchers say." They also describe another part of the study involving brain scans, and found evidence of a rapid fall-off of focus after the initial few seconds. Moreover, "44% of survey respondents say they struggle to focus on tasks and 37% say their inability to use time well forces them to work late or on weekends, the National Post reports." (See below)
Under an image of a goldfish, the caption: "Goldfish have an ability to focus that puts Canadians to shame"
"People now have shorter attention spans than goldfish - and our always-on portable devices may be to blame, a new study suggests", not even addressing results such as the soaring number of highway fatalities due to texting (#1 cause of teen deaths on the highway), and other worrisome trends. As noted, "thanks to our desire to always be connected, people can multi-task like never before." Research suggests that 'like never before' people are suffering injuries and making errors across multiple tasks 'like never before true', as the simple reality is that 'multi-tasking' is not leading to productivity, safety, or quality of life improvements. Rather, it carves up what used to be full-focus (useful for things like books or conversations) into 8-second maximum bursts of attention, with little evidence of sustained attention or concentration and much research describing the harm done to to 'working memory'. Who is happy about all this? Device makers and data dealers, maybe? It remains unclear how marketers will use the findings, beyond catering to near-non-existent attention spans, impulse behavior, and device devotion. George Orwell, meanwhile, was right (though off by a few years) in describing a future with 24/7 surveillance and always-on screens.
To be accurate, many people are doing much more than texting while operating a motor vehicle, from video chatting to casual surfing. Unfortunately, driving requires focus and attention on the road, not a screen or another task requiring attention. What's left? A time when 'social pressure' has become literally 'to die for', even knowing (or ignoring) the danger of driving while under the influence of distraction. With many, many deaths as a result. But will this deter the pushing of distractions on drivers, masquerading as 'entertainment'?
Returning briefly to human psychology, in terms of motivation and the objects of our desires since forever, and our 'fixations' and 'obsessions'...
In Freud's day (through the 1960's) people's 'OCD' and 'fixations' tended to be on various discrete elements (things) in one's life, not one single central device which represents a large chunk of life, promoted and supported by marketing, social persuasion, and instant gratification. From bully to social butterfly, everyone can now 'self-actualize' through one simple, always-on, two-way device. So it is natural for devices to take on such a central role, as it has become the primary focus of one's remaining attention, very often. And back to Freud:
Freud described 'cathexis' as a dynamic whereby we assign and attach ('cathect') importance to 'objects' and direct our energies towards them. [The object relations & psychoanalytic crowd might also speak of 'displacement', and see the objects as symbolic representations of someone or something else, or 'transitional objects', but that's for another discussion.]
Fast forward: Today's new appendages - devices - offer gratification on demand. And - 24/7 - we live in a virtual candy store full of sweet distractions.
The connection (no pun intended) is this: Freud said that objects are represented in our obsessions, dreams, and our internal representations of people, be it emotional or sexual objectification or directed at only a 'part object' ... I'll stop the advanced psychology lecture here, from about the time, historically, that Psychoanalytic Theory was being impacted by Ego and Interpersonal and Humanistic Psychology. It all comes down to our drives and needs and wishes, and how we fulfill them. From a behavioral perspective, we are reinforced for our actions while distractions may offer welcome avoidance of 'aversive stimuli'.
In sum, in the classical psychodynamic lingo, MANY people 'become cathected to', or 'cathect to' items with 'neurotic' devotion. A style of clothes. A certain look. A certain thing. They may become the focus of all sorts of devotion, fulfilling a need, as well as bringing pleasure - and perhaps serving as a faithful companion second only to the canine, feline, or human companion.
What about the (ha ha) 'geek' or 'nerd' who has 3 of the latest everything, or the one who quit his/her job to have sufficient time for gaming? OK, that's extreme. And constant tweeting? Check-ins? Relations - face to face, in realtime - at the dinner table? It is easy to be hypnotized by all the adverts, or to fall victim to peer pressure - the NEW peer pressure: social media. (That term is the American version - while the rest of the world knows it by what it has largely become: social *marketing*, whereby 'likes' are sold to 'friends', and perhaps 'crowd-sourced' too.)
It is the social interaction which leads many to prefer or avoid things like a telephone. (See Larry Rosen's PokeMe for a look at generational differences.) It's the app that appeals, and devices may be just that, or a way of life - for example, Facebook. There's a wide spectrum ranging from self-help and social or recreational platforms and apps, something for anyone, 24/7. Or as-needed. For some the phone is just a tool. For others it is a lifeline. Some live their lives on the device. It reflects the owner's needs. And images. And brands. And likes. And location. And... distraction attraction.
In the end, a device is just a device, a tool. It can be neuroticized, 'obsessed' over, or an invisible enabler of 'addiction' to all that it reliably offers. 24/7. 365. [Insert favorite cartoon here!] It's when we become the slave rather than master of our devices, I refer to 'device devotion'. Or disruption. Larry Rosen references our 'weapons of mass distraction'. Maybe a bit of 'mass hysteria' and 'a war for mass consumption'?
People (and telcos and merchants) sure do love our devices! It may be hard to see from inside the forest. Context and perspective matter.
Has 'social media' become today's new 'peer pressure' on steroids? Are we so devoted to focus-free that we accept highway deaths and high error rates /low productivity due to the myth of 'multi-tasking' being good (or efficient)? Might we be victims of 'cognitive dissonance', where we love our devices unconditionally or admit there may be more than devotion? Has the 'selfie' made it the norm to present and brand ourselves for mass consumption? Is it a new dawn for 'narcissism' (healthy and unhealthy)? Is it 'normal' to view oneself as public, in an age where 'everybody's a star'?
There is a *lot* of 'device devotion' out there! Here are but a few observations about the interface between people and their devices.
Meanwhile, here are a few interesting bits of video &/or text reports which resonate with
those of us who have seen the days of device devotion, pre and post-Millennium. How social has exploded and turned us into device devotees. Salespeople. Marketers. Endorsers. Friends. Followers. A bit like "Friends, Romans, Countrymen... Lend me your likes". Our whole shared planet is networked, socially and informationally. (See the video below for an interesting and brief talk on this aspect.) Cultures may vary, as does the form and extent of Device Devotion. But many suffer consequences from excessive 'distraction attraction'. So little time here and now.
Many mental health professionals (as well as spiritual and religious efforts to achieve 'mindfulness') would counsel people who still can, to live life, disconnect the wires and networks to de-stress and smell the ... essence of life, social and otherwise. Balance and integration. Life is not about the devices and friend counts. Not even followers! Or tweets. Or how big your screen or sound is. Oh, our ubiquitous devices..... (Could you imagine if world affairs were conducted by tweet and 7-second attention spans?)
Step Away From the Phone!
Trying to break the habit, at work and throughout the day.
(Note: it is more than just a 'phone' these days! It's an all-in-one instant-gratifier and constant distraction &/or preoccupation. - maf)
NY Times, 22 Sep 2013
A report on the new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics which proposes family 'media plans', given how "exposure to TV, smartphones, computers, tablets, and all forms of social media play a dominant role in the lives of American kids and teens..." - and adults too! Includes several resources including a link to healthychildren.org where one can learn How to Make a Family Media Use Plan.
"The study confirms a huge wealth of previous data that proves cell phone and other gadget overuse can cause a wide range of problems including damaged relationships, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of empathy, lowered cognitive ability, worse grades in school, lowered productivity at work and more."
Beyond a particular social or gaming destination, or any single task which requires a screen, the 'big picture' is increasingly one of people being literally connected to devices 24/7. Big screens, more profitable (and addictive) small screens - from Google Glass to cinema displays for computers, how much of our attention is now directed at screens? Many are voicing concern about a lifestyle addiction beyond Facebook, Twitter, or other single sites, but focusing on the ubiquitous screen. Screens of every size, for every situation. No wonder some are now discussing 'screen addiction'.
"You know your smartphone addiction has reached an entirely new level of unhealthy when you can't hit the pillow at night without it beside you."
Concise and common-sense reasons to turn FOMO (fear of 'missing out') into JOMO - the 'joy of missing out', on overstimulation, sleep deprivation, and worsened relationships in the here and now. All for such relentless 'device devotion'?
As landline 'telephones' go near-extinct and people continue to navigate life with (and never without) their externally-tethered master-control device, dependency on the one-device-does-it-all has extended to daily-life extinction of things like alarm clocks and computers and appointment 'books' (and independent thinking, perhaps). Here is one tip from 'Camp Grounded' which addresses the issue of digital dependency from last thing at night to arising first thing in the morning. For some, it is simple, though others will surely say "it's not an option". Time for this camp?
In the face of so much anxiety at being 'unplugged' from data and screens even momentarily, many report having 'Fear of Missing Out' (FOMO). It can consume one's time and attention. Here are some thoughts about essentially re-framing the situation, and learning to replace FOMO with JOMO - the JOY of missing out: missing out on being yoked to devices at the expense of non-digital life, and feeling joy at forgotten pleasures, like conversation, nature, love, health, and off-screen life with all that it offers, still.
On one hand, there is evidence to suggest that 'everybody has gone social', with a recent Pew Research study noting that 45% of (adult) U.S. Facebook users are on that platform multiple times throughout each day. Doesn't that illustrate how the wave of 'social', 'friends', and 'FB sharing' has made us all hyper-connected, part of the same busy 'social' hive? Not necessarily, says Larry Rosen and others. What is our definition of (meaningful) social interaction, and is it the same definition as Facebook and their corporate sycophants would offer? Is 'social' just a 'virtual kind of thing', and 'friends' merely trophies or adornments to add to one's 'timeline' (nee wall) alongside cat memes and one's selfie of the day? Surely there are positives and negatives, within the tsunami of 'everybody doing it'. As Rosen notes: "Connecting Virtually is not Like Real-World Bonding". It may be 'like', but different!
Includes a video tracing the origins of the smart device ("...and we are calling it i-Phone"), and a look at the 'evolution' of mobile devices from telephone to virtual bodily organ akin to an external brain. A look at some of the psychology and brain science, and further suggestions by Larry Rosen on possible ways to re-connect to non-digital life.
Perhaps we've now reached the vicious cycle stage: 'Addicted to apps? There's an app for that.' Today it is not only the 'phone' around which so many lives revolve, but the does-everything 'device' which has become an appendage, its ubiquitous presence and portability now the center of so many human and commercial universes. Is there any hope, beyond training in the use of the on/off switch, or attending a boot camp? Has the device marketing succeeding in making devices smarter than their owners? Is (human) mindfulness still alive?
It makes for easy tweets and memes and infographics, but it is quite serious when distracted driving (texting, checking, posting, SMS, etc.) has soared to the #1 cause of teen highway deaths in the U.S., and where people are dying - literally and regularly - to get that 'to die for' selfie. The point is... Mindfulness? Priorities? And what if there were no screens or eyeballs atuned to one's every post? Is it even imaginable, life without constant distraction and/or compulsion to 'share' with 1000s or millions of 'friends' or 'followers'?
"Teenagers today have never known a world without the internet, which may be why half of all adolescents say they’re addicted to their digital devices. In her new documentary 'Screenagers', Dr. Delaney Ruston explores why young people are so drawn to social media and video games and what effect it’s having on their brains." [PBS]
What was attention/focus followed by processing/'thinking' - or as labelled here, 'reflection - has become scrolling/reacting/sharing/repeating.
Screen-watching throughout the waking day and 'managing impressions' of our virtual relationships and activities, rapidly and continuously until out of coverage or battery, is for many now 'normal life'. But beware walkers and drivers whose 'attention' is elsewhere, without focus, attention, or processing of what's come before or the road ahead. Batteries not included.
The director of a center for children with learning challenges cites the work of M.I.T. sociologist Sherry Turkle, on the role of 'mindful' and sincere emotional connection (including non-verbal). She also notes the observations by comedian Louis C.K. about how children can be 'mean' even without social media further empowering bullies, etc. Overall, a call for 'mindfulness' of parents, who may themselves be modeling or enabling harmful 'social' behavior.
And the vast majority of people in many regions and all walks of life - even a new President - continue to be unable to 'put it down'. Something easy to observe as a social scientist, all of everyday life now seems more oriented towards never-ending 'information' streaming in to our screens of all sizes, at all times of day & night. It is also clear that Facebook etc. have teams working very hard to deliberately make their page 'sticky' enough to hold eyeballs there - and there alone, as the place for 'social', 'news', 'memories', and living one's 'timeline'. This excellent piece explores the story behind the mass-hypnotizing/influencing of consumers to be constantly connected to apps (and their containers). Fascinating.
Surprise, surprise! Many people are being ruled by tech 'devices' rather than being the master of our technology. Which is the tool? Which is the master? (My old theme song.)
Finally, a still-valid overview from PBS, expanding the focus a bit to explore further implications of our lives becoming public and digitalized, and technology now doing jobs formerly done by humans. Here is a video essay on PBS's Making Sense series, featuring tech guru (and humanist/musician) Jaron Lanier. He may have been prescient in his concerns about our ceding our lives, unpaid, as we are monitored and monetized.
(PBS NewsHour, 17 Jun 2013)