Does Our Society Have A.D.D.?

I find myself wondering some days if my phone is serving me or if it is controlling me. I get irrationally angry at it many times. I try to hide it because it is irrational to get mad at a machine. Yet, whenever I begin to ignore it and enjoy a nice day outside or spend time with my family, it chimes in with a notification like it’s a needy ex-girlfriend. It knows I’m ignoring it. It misses me. Well, the smart people of Silicon Valley miss me. Because most of the apps today track how often you use them and try to get your attention when you stop devoting your attention to these apps. Attention is the new currency.

It’s easy for people to say just put down the phone and ignore it. But we are becoming a society that is increasingly connected to this Matrix. I have a full-time job that requires that I be reachable, pretty much all the time. So, I rarely am found without my phone. And on the rare occasion I am, I fear missing a customer’s call or a family member’s text. Even holidays can’t provide freedom from this world of constant connections. My girlfriend’s mother called to check on us as we were traveling. She didn’t have her phone so she checked in with me. This is sweet and I have no problem with it, but I know that if I am not reachable, eventually people begin to worry. I have family members that do this too. It usually starts with a text, but if I don’t respond, I get a phone call. I know that if I don’t respond quick enough, I’m causing them anxiety. We have no freedom anymore. Society demands that we are always reachable. No one is free from constant contact.

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So, we walk around all day, every day carrying these distraction devices. Everything they do is instant gratification with minimal time constraints. We spend 10 seconds looking at a picture on Instagram or 15 seconds reading a tweet or 30 seconds watching a video. Everything is instant, quick and providing little hits of dopamine. All these mind-numbing bite size pieces of information are overloading our brains. We act like we are better than this, but I see a society with no attention span. We are the "too long; didn’t read" generation. Most people no longer know how to hold a conversation for more than a couple minutes. Phone calls are perceived as an inconvenience. I even read somewhere that its impolite to not text or email first and ask to schedule a call. I know as I write this, that I must be economical with my words, as the majority of my readers won’t read through an entire post if it runs too long. Many of these posts are short, but even those can be too long for a society constantly distracted by the next distraction.

All is not hopeless though. There are plenty of ways to use our phone in helpful ways while not letting it impede too much on our daily lives. Because I do enjoy my phone when it is serving me. I have moved to 6 different towns and cities in the past 8 years so the Maps app alone has been a lifesaver. But I find that turning off notifications for most of the apps really helps to avoid looking at the phone. I also turn night shift on to avoid seeing blue light right before bed. It also serves as a reminder to stop using my phone so much as it is nearly bedtime. I’m not perfect on this, but I sleep better when my phone isn’t the last thing I see. One of the most helpful tips for me though has been cleaning up my home screen on my phone. I moved all the most distracting items to another page and save the useful apps for my home screen. Like Insight Timer for meditation, Pacer for tracking my steps and DuoLingo for practicing Spanish.

I’m not the first person to suggest a link between attention problems and technology. What is troubling in recent times is the rapid advance of the capabilities of phones where they are basically minicomputers that we can take with us everywhere. Also of concern is the frightening amount of children who use a phone. Even toddlers will play with a parent’s smartphone or iPad. On the HelmofAwesome website, I see that 60% of my readers will read this on a mobile device. These devices can be used for good and there is so much amazing content out there to help us stay informed as well as beautiful art to enjoy. What's important is that we learn how to balance our natural lives with our technological lives. Are we looking online out of impulse when we should be sharing our attention with those around us? We so often talk of the fear of missing out when it comes to our online worlds, but does it come at an expense? What are we missing out on in the real world to look at an endless stream of gossip and political nonsense on social media? Besides, most of the content we see on social media is forgettable and won't matter in a week or a year.

The problem is that our default action in the event of boredom is to pull out our phone. We fear boredom when we should embrace our little quiet moments of peace. Our society needs to relearn how to enjoy the moment. I fear that we are raising an entire generation that will not know boredom. I see many young kids on their phones when they should be using their imagination and playing outside. If you look closely at these kids, you’ll likely see parents nearby who are also on their phones. Like it or not, setting an example speaks volumes that your words often can’t. I use my phone for work and promoting this website, but I try to be fully engaged in whatever activity I am doing when I can. I also love to sit down to read a book. A real physical one; not a kindle or tablet. There are too many distractions and there is an ineffable quality to a real book. A real book doesn't ping with notifications or run out of battery. Life is beautiful and it is so easy to miss these moments when we have our heads down all the time constantly checking notifications and social media. We as a society need to disconnect from our phones and reconnect with our natural world.