Smartphones provide an inconsistent schedule of stimuli –
which can make them hard to put down (Credit: Getty Images)
This article is adapted from Driven to Distraction, presented by historian Rhys Jones and produced by Joe Sykes. Adapted and expanded by Eva Ontiveros.
Our modern brains seem to struggle to focus on just one task, constantly jumping from one activity to the next.
Skip rates on music download services like Spotify have never been faster; magazine articles now come with estimated reading times.
And nearly a quarter of people who took part in a British survey said they had been involved in distracted-walking accidents: heads down, staring at smartphones, bumping into lamp posts.
We seem to be facing a distraction crisis, but is there a ‘cure’ for not paying attention? And who is robbing us of our focus?
Stealing our concentration?
Social media, targeted advertising, YouTube, apps: big tech companies have learned how to monetise procrastination and are stealing our attention systematically and on an industrialised scale.
“There is an entire industry dedicated to stealing our attention, and most of us don’t even realise it’s happening,” says Belinda Parmar, a former tech evangelist who’s now so concerned about the effects of tech on our mental health she has become a tech-addiction campaigner.
“The tech industry keeps promising to bring the world closer, but really their prime target is to take time away from us,” she says, noting some companies, such as entertainment platform Netflix, don’t even disguise it.
“When Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, tells you that their biggest competitor is sleep, you’ve got to think twice,” says Parmar, “If you are chronically sleep-deprived, how are you going to pay any attention in life?”
Parmar, now CEO of The Empathy Business, recognises technology has many positives, but points out that “tech also has a dark side”.
Another person who switched views on technology is James Williams, a former Google staffer who realised the goals that big tech companies had were not in line with his own values.
Their focus, he says, was on maximising clicks, views and the amount of time people engaged with products. But with so much technology around him, he found it impossible to find space for reflection.
He likens users of technology to serfs and the big tech companies to the lords of the manor. Today, he says, “serfdom isn’t the conflict over our physical labour, but over our attention”.
Although many digital products may be free to use, they are taking our most precious resource: our time.
Driven to distraction
Tim Wu, Columbia University professor and the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, says the need to check our phones constantly is down to the lure of what is called a ‘variable reward schedule’.
B. F. Skinner, a famous psychologist and Harvard University professor, came up with the idea after conducting a series of experiments. He showed that pigeons become more addicted to pecking a button that delivers seeds if they don’t know when the seeds will be dispatched.
The inconsistent stimuli of rewards are well understood to be the most addictive, says Wu, just like a slot machine. So, like pigeons pecking at that button, we tap away on our phones, often disappointed but sometimes getting something that we find exciting, like a good article, and that keeps us coming back.
“In this way you will lose hours of your day, days of your week, months of your life on things that you didn’t even really care about,” he says.
So, is there a way to stop our minds from wandering off?
Taking back time
Nir Eyal, a best-selling author who studies habit formation and an expert on consumer behaviour, knows all the tricks tech companies use to capture our attention. He used to teach them how to do it.
He says you can get back your time and concentration with a certain amount of personal effort. And he says it’s up to individuals, because “our government is not going to save us, and neither are the tech companies”.
He has a four-step plan to stop getting distracted by technology.
Step 1 – Manage your internal triggers: When we’re distracted, we’re normally looking to escape from something uncomfortable. Try to work out what it is and manage it.
Step 2 – Make time for distraction: Set aside time in your day to be distracted – that way it won’t feel like your time is being invaded. Give yourself a set hour that’s ‘social media time’.
Step 3 – Remove the external triggers: Turn off your notifications and the rings, pings and dings that tell you what to do.
Step 4 – Make pacts to prevent distraction: Get a technology app that tries to limit the amount of time you spend on your phone. The key factor is self-awareness: once you realise you’re being distracted by your phone or tablet, you start putting it down.
Children and adults alike have become “increasingly dependent on – and dare I say intimate with – our screens at the expense of our interactions with one another”, says Susan Maushart, an Australian journalist and mother who was exasperated with her family’s tech obsession.
“Technology was affecting the way my family paid attention,” she says, so she decided the solution was to remove all devices and live in the dark for six months.
“I wanted people to make eye contact and have conversations. I wanted them to sit around the dinner table and not speed-eat so they could get back to their texting and messaging and YouTubing. I wanted my family back,” Maushart says.
So, did it work? There was more time spent actually talking to one another, she says, but there was also a lot of boredom. Although it had made her rethink her relationship with her screens, after six months she was ready to go back. She admits that the day she turned the devices back on felt like Christmas.
So if switching off our screens doesn’t work, what else can we do?
Reforming tech companies
James Williams believes that the key to solving the problem is to create a new ethical system that can govern the ‘attention industry’.
“We should desire worlds where just trying to capture someone’s attention for the sake of it is seen as an indignity and something approaching a form of evil,” says Williams. “If ethics and the values we have for ourselves aren’t guiding technology design, then something else is.”
With that in mind, he’s started a group called Time Well Spent – together with other attention industry rebels – and is campaigning for app companies to change the way they design their products. “These companies say they want to improve our lives but what they’re taking from us when they take attention is far more precious than anything else in the world,” he says.
But what if attention isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, but something we have control over? Maybe it isn’t the tech industries that need to change, but us.
“You’ll never stand a chance,” says Belinda Parmar, who’s seen first-hand the effect tech addiction has on mental health, particularly on children and young adults. “You’re an individual trying to make what you think is a well-informed choice… but you are unaware that behind each app there is a team of developers, psychologists and gaming experts whose sole object is to steal your attention.”
“You can’t fight that on your own, especially if you’re a child. How can we fight these digital gangsters?”