Do You Have the Attention Span to Read this Entire Article?
Social media is wreaking havoc on our ability to concentrate and think.
Social media is an easy target. There are so many reasons to find it troubling – and yet it is so seductive. I’ve written about the lack of personal privacy and modesty, about the hurt it can cause and the lack of sensitivity it engenders. We all know the illusions it creates – of others who are happier, more successful, more popular – and the confusion that occurs when we seem unable to enjoy any experience unless all of our friends are able to see it and “like” it.
Even death seems to now be a Facebook phenomenon as news of a loved one’s passing is immediately posted online and condolences delivered in the same fashion.
Yet, as I ponder the social media generation, I find a more serious cause for concern: the decay of our ability to concentrate, to control our time and our attention.
Let’s look at these issues in order.
1. Loss of concentration: We were already becoming a sound bite society. If it’s longer than the original 140-word limit Tweet, no one pays attention. How can we learn anything important that way? We can’t.
But it’s even worse. In many situations all sorts of information comes at us at once or we fall prey to the ease of switching rapidly back and forth between sites and apps. Under such circumstances no serious learning can take place. This is antithetical to the Torah guidelines to devote long, solid blocks of time to pore over a page of Talmud and learn Torah.
Torah wisdom is acquired through tremendous effort and concentration. Witty cocktail party repartee and news of celebrity birthday bashes can be gleaned as we flip from site to site or from info that pops up on our screen. But insights about marriage, tips for parents, wisdom for living all require serious time and thought, and concentration. This is too precious a commodity to sacrifice on the altar of social media.
2. Controlling our time: Yes, of course we are ultimately responsible, but just as advertisers employ tools of psychological manipulation in constructing ads to sell their products, so too the staff behind these websites strategize how to keep us on their page for as long as possible, how to lead us from friend to friend to friend on Facebook and subject to subject as we surf the web.
Someone recently confessed to me that she can sit down at her computer at 11 PM exploring one idea/item/category with each one leading to something else until the next time she picks up her head it’s 2 AM! I know she isn’t alone.
3. Controlling our attention: This has numerous components. Most of us have noticed that if we visit a retail website and peruse its offerings, those pages will pop up everywhere we go online (even on aish.com!). Even articles are pushed on us by external forces – by algorithms used by websites to keep us interested and engaged and by Apple News Feed. I frequently find myself reading a story that appears on said feed. Unfortunately that item may then lead to all sorts of gruesome and/or inappropriate stories I would rather not read – or even know about. But once it’s in my face, it’s like a car wreck, hard to look way.
Of course, I am responsible. I’m also responsible if I’m seduced by Madison Avenue to buy products I don’t need. But in both cases, I am also the victim of an all-out effort that’s hard to combat.
And since there is such competition online for users’ eyes, every site and offering has to be more outlandish, more attention-grabbing, louder and more colorful and more entertaining than the last. We are less able to invest concentrated thought and learning in our frenetic Internet age.
I’m not suggesting we put the genie back in the bottle. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. I’m just suggesting that we maintain perspective, that we recognize the cost, that we work hard not to lose our precious learning opportunities, that we try our best to reclaim our time, our concentration and our attention.
Perhaps that once-a-week total disconnect called Shabbos is a good place to start...