In school, my older brother was asked to wait an extra year before beginning kindergarten. “He just can’t pay attention,” his teacher told my mother. “He’s not ready.” Mom asked him if he wanted to wait until he was older before coming back to school, but he insisted. He stayed in, with the determination to focus his attention to earn that right.
Children usually get a bad rap for having a short attention span. Especially in these days, parents are cautioned about the dangers of modern technology in wearing away a child’s attention. It is true that children quickly adapt to the technology they are born with exposure to, and often a toddler can take the lead in showing adults how to use their phones and tablets.
However, children are not the only or the most challenged in managing their technology usage. Often, it is the adults who are absorbed in their technology, even when the children are seeking attention. Perhaps, because the presence of technology is so assumed for them, young kids still seem to put greater emphasis and value on human interaction. In my experience, children are more likely to show off their game or cool device features as a bridge for drawing in and connecting to adults rather than for shutting them out.
My little nephew will hold his tablet out to me and say, “Look at my game; see what this guy does,” demanding my responses which quickly lead into a entirely different conversation in which the game is forgotten. On the other side, his 6-year-old brother sagely remarks, “I have my tablet game with me too, but I’m not getting it out because I’d rather talk to people.”
A study in the journal, Child Development, found that 40% of mothers and 32% of fathers confess they use technology in problematic ways. Examples given by the researchers in the study were distraction from interacting with a child, irritation at a child’s interruptions, and not being aware or following up on a child’s bad behavior. The intrusions from technological devices in parent-child dynamics were linked to anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and disruptive behavior in children.
I have often spent time with a room full of adults, only so each person could sit quietly invested in whatever was happening on their own small screen to the exclusion of all others. It may be a symptom of adults’ maturity in wanting to deal with important matters. The problem is that in the age of Internet and instant Google searches, social media posts, and continuous updates, everything is made to seem vastly important, but it remains at the forefront with the chance of catching our eye for just a few moments before it is pushed out of sight by the next big thing.
The days of waiting until the next morning to pick up a newspaper with headlines printed a day or two before are over for people who can hold 24-hour updates in the palm of their hand. They don’t even have to take the time to go to a specific news website or turn on the TV or radio to find out the news. The “trending section” of Facebook lets people know the moment a new topic hits, and Twitter can condense the whole gist of it into just a few characters.
In his new book Understanding the Culture, Christian apologist Jeff Myers quotes journalism professor John Sommerville in saying, “the twenty-four-hour news cycle actually makes us dumber because when everything seems urgent, it is difficult to distinguish what is really important.”
Our attention is limited, and so we piece it out stingily in tiny fractions for just a few seconds at a time. Unfortunately, our handheld devices are usually nearest and most clamoring with their alerts and dings and notifications lighting up the screen. And so they carry the day away by diverting our attention from what is uniquely present for each of us alone in favor of what seems of universal importance to the whole world.
Myers also quotes journalist Maggie Johnson in writing, “Nothing is more central to creating a flourishing society built upon learning, contentment, caring, morality, and spirit than attention. As humans we are formed to pay attention. Without it we simply would not survive.”
The task of learning to pay attention is a chore we must master long after the days of kindergarten. In the age of modern technology, paying attention only becomes harder and harder as the pace of life and the flood of new information picks up more and more. And so we must assign ourselves the homework of paying attention.
In public places, even when alone, leave the cellphone out of sight and spend the time people-watching instead. People are more accustomed these days to communicating through text or emojis than by incorporating body language and facial expressions. People-watching rehearses the art of picking up on those non-verbal cues and reminds of the importance of being aware of those interactions in yourself and others.
Also, plan to leave your phone on silent and on the shelf during evening hours or weekends at home. Whether on your own or with family, use those precious hours to focus on individual happenings, not the world’s business.
At the least, take a lesson from kids and consider how your media time might be shared with others. Watch a YouTube video with a friend or family member, or have fun discussing what you saw on Facebook. If you just have to post that significant event or awesome selfie, let your companions know why you’re pulling out your phone, and make it quick and leave checking up on all the notifications until later.
Most of all, indulge in the art of living fully in the moment. Take in the colors, the sounds, and the memories presented in live-action by the real world, not your screen’s glossy face. There will always be something significant happening somewhere in the world to someone else. The moments you have are uniquely yours and are unrecoverable. Do more than just paying attention enough to survive. Concentrate on really living.