Electronics and Our Ability to Focus

close-up of a wide open eye
photo by Juliana Coutinho

Are you easily distracted?

Do you ever wonder what all the screen time you get every day is doing to your attention span?  Do you read the studies they do on little kids that talk about how television and video games contribute to shortened attention spans and ADHD and wonder if this might apply to you, too?  Or do you just not have the focus to think through one of those questions to completion? (I’m teasing, of course)

No matter what your answers are to those questions, this is something you should be concerned about, even if you don’t have kids.  The ability to focus and concentrate is a vital one, and one you can’t afford to lose.  Yet we’re all losing it.  For example, you have NO idea how long it took me to write this post because of all the background tabs I had open in the browser window, the television going in the other room, and my cell phone within arm’s reach.  There didn’t even have to be anything actively calling my attention away; it just wandered.  I used to be much better at concentrating on the task at hand.  Now I focus in short bursts, which isn’t exactly ideal.

The problem lies in the fact that electronics (and the internet especially) promote both multitasking and information overload, and our brains aren’t designed to learn by multitasking.  The more things there to distract us from the information we’re trying to learn or the task we’re trying to complete, the harder it’s going to be for us to retain anything or get anything done.  The brain works best on one thing at a time.  Forcing it to try to do many things at once shatters our attention spans and makes it harder for us to focus intently on any one thing, if for no other reason than we’re getting ourselves out of practice at it.

There are even guidelines for writing for the web that take into account the reduced attention spans of most web-users.  We don’t even focus enough on the screen to read completely through whatever it is we’re looking at; most online readers are skimmers, and if you look at the layout of popular websites, you’ll see how this habit is catered to (i.e. bullets, short sentences and paragraphs, lists).  I’m guilty of skim-reading myself, and I’ll often leave a website that isn’t optimized for skimming.  Not because the information is sub-par, but because there’s just so much information available at my fingertips that reading through everything seems too slow.  If I can’t find what I want at a glance, I’m gone.

The good news is that there are simple ways to improve your attention span, focus, and concentration ability.  Daily meditation (and here) is one of these simple techniques.  There are even meditation programs for kids (too cool, IMO).  You can try herbal remedies (affiliate link)a formal plan (affiliate link), or you can just try practicing.

Taking a break from the computer and cell phone couldn’t hurt, either.

How good is your ability to focus?  Do you find that your attention span has shortened?  What do you do about it?

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Pam is a preschool teacher and writer with a background in psychology and child development. She's available for freelance work, private consulting, or just a nice chat. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or via email at p.komarnicki AT social-discomfort DOT com.

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