Tag: attention

The dangers of distracted parenting

I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents’ screentime.

Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.

As parents, and in society in general, we’re super-hot on limiting kids’ screentime, but we don’t necessarily apply that to ourselves:

[S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents… who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

‘Continuous partial attention’ is the term people tend to use these days instead of ‘multitasking’. To my mind it’s a better term, as it references the fact that you’re not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you’re trying to pay attention to them.

I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren’t.

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

Amen to that.

Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

Attention scarcity as an existential threat

This post is from Albert Wenger, a partner a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. It’s taken from his book World After Capital, currently in draft form.

In this section, Wenger is concerned with attention scarcity, which he believes to be both a threat to humanity, and an opportunity for us.

On the threat side, for example, we are not working nearly hard enough on how to recapture CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or containing the outbreak of the next avian flu: we should have a lot more collective attention dedicated to early detection and coming up with vaccines and treatments.

The reason the world’s population is so high is almost entirely due to the technological progress we’ve made. We’re simply better at keeping human beings alive.

On the opportunity side, far too little human attention is spent on environmental cleanup, free educational resources, and basic research (including the foundations of science), to name just a few examples. There are so many opportunities we could dedicate attention to that over time have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life here on Earth not just for humans but also for other species.

Interestingly, he comes up with a theory as to why we haven’t heard from any alien species yet:

I am proposing this as a (possibly new) explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which famously asks why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our rather large universe. We now even know that there are plenty of goldilocks planets available that could harbor life forms similar to those on Earth. Maybe what happens is that all civilizations get far enough to where they generate huge amounts of information, but then they get done in by attention scarcity. They collectively take their eye off the ball of progress and are not prepared when something really bad happens such as a global pandemic.

Attention scarcity, then, has the opportunity to become an existential threat to our species. Pay attention to the wrong things and we could either neglect to avoid a disaster, or cause one of our own making.

Source: Continuations

Going deep

I don’t think the right term for this is ‘mobile blindness’ but Seth Godin’s analogy is nevertheless instructive.

He talks about the shift over the last 20 years or so in getting our news and information on primarily via books and newspapers, to getting it via desktop computers, and now predominantly through our mobile devices. Things become bite-sized, and our attention field is wide by shallow.

Photokeratitis (snow blindness) happens when there’s too much ultraviolet–when the fuel for our eyes comes in too strong and we can’t absorb it all. Something similar is happening to each of us, to our entire culture, as a result of the tsunami of noise vying for our attention.

It’s possible you can find an edge by going even faster and focusing even more on breadth at the surface. But it’s far more satisfying and highly leveraged to go the other way instead. Even if it’s just for a few hours a day.

If you care about something, consider taking a moment to slow down and understand it. And if you don’t care, no need to even bother with the surface.

This isn’t a technology issue, it’s an attention issue. Yes, it’s possible to argue that these devices are designed to capture your attention. But we all still have a choice.

You can safely ignore what doesn’t align with your goals in life. First, of course, you have to have some goals…

Source: Seth Godin

Using your phone wisely

I’m a big fan of The Book of Life, a project of The School of Life. One of the latest updates to this project is about the pervasive use of smartphones in society.

To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.

I feel this. I want my mind to wander, but I also kind of want to be informed. I want to be entertained.

We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves.

The diminutive digital assistants in our pockets do our bidding and unlock a multitude of possibilities.

Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.

It’s a cliché to say that it’s the small things in life that make it worth living, but it’s true.

Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:

  • The curious delicacy of a friend’s wrist
  • The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
  • Moss on an old stone wall
  • The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
  • The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
  • A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
  • The texture and smell and colour of a ripe fig
  • The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
  • How nice it is to read in the bath
  • The comfort of an old jumper (with holes under the armpits)

Every technology is a ‘bridging’ technology in the sense of coming after something less sophisticated, and before something more sophisticated. My hope is that we iterate towards, rather than away, from what makes us human.

We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.

As ever, a fantastic article.

Source: The Book of Life