If it’s possible to feel pity for an inanimate object, then my laptop has my deepest sympathies. As I type, I have six browser windows open, each with at least 20 tabs (one with considerably more). In my defence, it’s part of my patented organisation strategy. Each window is for a different project: one public seminar, two articles, a book, clinic work and checking out options for a local Pilates class. Yet, as my computer protests at the demands being placed upon it, I wonder whether my extreme browser habits are a sign of something more worrying. Do I have the attention span of a toddler at a birthday party? Are there too many tabs open in my brain?
Perhaps you have wondered this yourself. It’s not an uncommon concern; several articles, news stories and books written over the past decade have lamented our purported shortening attention spans. One headline claimed that modern humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish. Most lay the blame firmly at the door of technology; character limits, automated content recommendations and bottomless feeds all competing for our finite attention.
So, should we be worried? Well, maybe. The good news is that a more thorough look at the research behind those headlines suggests that there isn’t actually any evidence to show that our attention spans are shrinking. And, in defence of goldfish, apparently they have pretty good memories, despite the bad press. So that’s something. But the omnipresence of tech means that we are only ever seconds away from a tasty little distraction, should we have the misfortune to be momentarily unoccupied.
And this is where your phone could be a hindrance, interfering with other valuable areas of daily life. For example, being conscious of your mobile phone can disrupt working memory – the kind required to keep information in mind in the moment, such as during a conversation. A series of studies conducted by the University of Essex indicated that having a mobile phone in one’s eyeline diminished feelings of closeness, trust and empathy when discussing meaningful topics. Snubbing someone to instead focus on your phone – so-called phubbing – creates feelings of rejection and reduces how satisfying the experience is for everyone taking part in it.
And the early signs indicate that ‘technoference’ is starting to have an effect on parent-child relationships, too. Children of phone-distracted parents experience more depressive symptoms, are less able to recover from stress, and express more negative behaviour than children whose parents are less distracted. It may even get in the way of creating healthy feeding behaviours. The occasional lapse is unlikely to be a problem, but try not to make it a habit to be on your phone when spending time with children.
Giving someone your time is an act of love. When your child, partner or friend sits to talk with you about something, be deliberate in putting your phone away. Show them that they are important enough to have your full consideration. Close some tabs and pay attention.
Photographs: Getty Images and supplied by Kimberley Wilson