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Saturday, May 25, 2024

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Opinion: Is my phone out to get me?

Apparently, our ability to focus and pay attention has been declining since the start of the industrial revolution but now seems to be accelerating incredibly fast. There are many potential causes for this but some are thought to include the development of artificial light, the proliferation of industrialised ‘foods’ that have little nutritional value, and more recently the invention of handheld devices and social media.

In his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari explores all of this and through meticulous research and interviews tries to answer the question: why can’t we pay attention?

This isn’t a review of the book, rather it’s my thoughts about the conclusions he comes to, and the recognition of my own behaviours that indicate I might be a tech junkie and therefore ruining my brain.

One of the reasons I found this book fascinating is that I have ADHD. While I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40 years old, a lack of focus and attention has always been a major issue for me. But, it appears now, there is an epidemic of inattentiveness, and much of seems to be linked with changes in the way modern humans live. 

According to Hari, most of us now reside in large cities where there is constant noise, pollution, and distraction. We are exposed to a level of stimulation our ancestors never experienced and a huge amount of that is coming from our phones and their related apps.   

Hari’s well researched contention is that big tech companies employ some of the cleverest people on the planet to capture our attention and ‘train’ us to spend as much time as possible on their apps and devices. 


It’s quite a claim isn’t it?  Humans are being trained to behave in certain ways that seem nonsensical when you think about them. I mean, we are spending hours a day glued to our phones, scrolling through relatively unimportant images and posts. Why?

If you don’t think you are a ‘trained’ human, then ask yourself how often you look at your phone or tablet. Are you on your device when you are also trying to do other things?

I didn’t think I was a trained being either but then I read about the mid Twentieth Century  scientific experiments that form the basic idea behind most social media. 

B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist and behaviourist who developed a theory called ‘operant conditioning’. Experimenting on animals he proved that by giving a ‘reward’ such as food to an animal in response to a stimulus such as a sound, he could get them to do all sorts of behaviours which were basically inane or even useless.

Hari states that this seemingly simple process is now used by tech companies because the human brain reacts in exactly the same way as a lab rat. Our actions can be influenced by reward based stimulations.

One of the strongest rewards a human can get is recognition and approval from another person. 

So, that underpins the rewards system that tech companies give us. For example, on Facebook it is ‘likes’, on Instagram it is ‘hearts’.  The reactions of others to our selfies and posts keep us hooked. It sounds simplistic, but it is very powerful, and it means that a huge swathe of the population spends hours a day on devices devouring this stuff. Even more insidious is the effect it is having on children.

The book goes on to explain how using these apps on our phones causes our attention to jump constantly and we tend not to absorb longer form stories or issues. Our brains are being influenced to digest small bits of information rather than concentrate on more complex items. 

Hari gives a hilarious but cynical and chillingly accurate summation of three of the biggest social media companies and what their core messaging really is:

Twitter:

You shouldn’t focus on any one thing for long.

The world should be interpreted and confidently understood very quickly. 

What matters most is whether people immediately agree with and applaud your short simple speed statements.

Facebook:

Your life exists to be displayed to other people and you should be aiming every day to show your friends edited highlights of your life.

What matters is whether people immediately like these edited highlights that you spend your life crafting. 

Somebody is your ‘friend’ if you regularly look at their edited highlight reels and they look at yours. 

Instagram:

What matters is how you look on the outside.

What matters is how you look on the outside.

What matters is how you look on the outside.

What matters is whether people like how you look on the outside.

One of the observations Hari makes is that we as consumers are often blamed for our addiction to phones and that if we get hooked on these apps, it’s our own fault, we do have the ‘choice’ to put down our phones after all.

What he rightly points out, is that we are all being manipulated by powerful psychologically based computer programmes that can trap us into compulsive behaviours.

One of the experts he interviewed for the book says there are ways we can limit the effect of these apps and devices, but, like anything that is addictive it’s not always that simple. 

Here are the suggestions:

If you have an urge to check your phone, particularly if you are doing something that requires concentration, wait 10 minutes. Chances are the urge will wane. 

If during a task you get an idea, or the desire to look something up on say Google, write it down on a post it note and then look up all those things in bulk at a later time. 

Use the ‘do not disturb’ feature on your phone so notifications will not interrupt you. 

Delete apps from your phone you don’t need and turn off notifications for those you do. Then schedule time to look at those apps either on another device such as a  laptop or tablet but limit the amount of time you do this. 

Lastly, try and understand what it is that triggers you to look at social media. Is it the desire for ‘likes’?  Is it boredom?  Is it a habit?  Understanding these things can make it easier to cut down the time you spend mindlessly scrolling. 

Try and do one thing at a time, because it is impossible to multitask. No really! No human can multitask. When you try to do two cognitive things at once, your attention switches from one task to another and there is a period of time where you have to reconnect to what you are doing which wastes time. 

The book covers other issues in depth such as the effects of pollution and the effects of industrialised products that are not really food that contribute to our lack of attention and mental stress. That is of course important, but it was the social media and tech factors that I found most eyeopening. 

I clearly saw many of my own behaviours mirrored in this book, especially the fact that when watching TV, or reading a book, I am constantly checking my phone and giving preference to its notifications. Even during conversations while I try to suppress urges to check my phone I get the urge, and often give in to it.

And here’s the thing. When I think about it, I virtually never get messages or notifications or even calls that are so urgent I need to stop what I’m doing. I’ve just got into the habit of always wanting to check.

Since reading Stolen Focus, I’ve started leaving my phone in another room as often as I can when reading, working, or watching TV, and especially so, when talking with someone. 

It is helping, and I find myself concentrating better, but I’m not always successful. I still have a strong desire to have my phone with me, and if I’m going out, I feel a mild anxiety at the thought of not taking it with me. After all, what if there’s an emergency?  What if I have to wait for something for five minutes and there’s nothing else to do?

I still take it with me, but I’ve started trying not to pick it up when I’m out. What i’ve discovered is that if I am sitting waiting, say for a bus, I start to think about things, and I start to notice things. Mostly, I notice that sitting with ‘nothing to do’ can be quite pleasant. 

One of these days, I’m going to leave the house and go for a long walk without my phone to see how it goes….. um… at least I think I am!

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