My Resolution: Putting the Distractions on Silent

We will soon eclipse the horizon of 2014, introducing a new year and a multitude of well-intended Resolutions that will be forgotten or discarded like some old toy within a month or two.

This is one of those well-intended Resolutions and I hope it can avoid the bargain bin.

The truth is I’ve already started on it. It started a few weeks ago, and while it is a work in progress, I did not intend it as my New Year’s Resolution.  It is more of a focus, a necessity.

A radio program I was listening to caught my attention discussing the effects of social media and smartphone devices on our attention span and brain development. That branched into reading and listening to a professor from Stanford University, Dr. Clifford Nass, who unfortunately passed away this year. (you can read here, and here, and listen here)

His research is incredible, foretelling, and frightening. 

“Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were actually better at it than those who did it frequently. He argued that heavy multitasking shortened attention spans and the ability to concentrate.”

Our devices consume us more than ever (guilty here!). Everything syncs together (Macbook, iPhone, etc.) and it borders on obsession.  We are so entranced by them we are “willing to walk into a pole” {credit to Nass for quote] to read that next e-mail — or worse.

Nass argues that our obsession with screens is affecting our ability to think.

“We see less complex ideas,” [Nass] said.

I am one of the worst offenders of this. You could take a snapshot of me on the computer and tell that much — cell phone nearby and 20 tabs open on the browser. And the crazy part is, I thought I was efficient at multitasking. After reading this, I remembered how I jumped from topic to topic, eventually landing on a completely different end of the spectrum from where I began. It was a myth.

We used to call each other to say “happy birthday” or “Merry Christmas.”  Now it arrives in a text.

Perhaps, the biggest reason for this urge to change these habits is my family. This is something I want to do for the benefit of my wife and my daughter. It all came to a head with the reading of this article on “How to Miss a Childhood.”

Every time we pick a smartphone over the person we are communicating with, we are saying that text is more important than the person in front of us (often a loved one).

“I can recall a time when you were out with your children you were really with them. You engaged in a back and forth dialog even if they were pre-verbal. You said, ‘Look at the bus, see the doggie, etc.’ Now I see you on the phone, pushing your kids on the swings while distracted by your devices.” (credit to a daycare instructor in this article)

My daughter is four months old, but this has impacted interactions with her and my wife. Now, we both committed early on to not using our phones while we were out on dates, but as the “date nights” became less and less frequent — the more I found myself glued to a cell phone and making my wife repeat what she said. My fear is for my daughter to become obsessed with these dear screens by seeing me interact with them so frequently.

Over the last month, I decided not to pounce at the buzzing notification of my phone. It is a habit that is not easy to break. You have this feeling that if you don’t respond immediately, the other person will wonder where you’ve gone or get upset with you. You feel obligated to look at that message. I don’t know when the urge to immediately respond will fade away.

I decided to rely less on my phone. I don’t feel that technology is bad, but it is a tool that we should use as just that. There are a lot of great benefits to smartphones and apps, but I am glad not to have grown up in a world that was already obsessed with screens, and instead in one that was oblivious to smartphones and tablets. I am thankful for that.

I observed a family in a car next to us over the holidays. I didn’t gawk or stare. I just glanced. I noticed the woman had gone into CVS, while the husband stayed behind. He was glued to his phone the entire time. Then I saw two children sitting in the back of the car glued to what looked like tablets. This will be the image burned in my mind for 2014, and one that I will do my best to prevent happening in my own vehicle.

“The moral of this story here is really clear,” he said in a talk at Stanford this year. “We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ ” — Dr. Clifford Nass

Dr. Nass has also helped pen some books if you are interested in reading more of his research. 

The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places
The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines
Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship
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