I really am sorry. The portable technology we’ve lured you into using — cellphones, iPads, iPods, laptops, apps and the Internet — have shrunk your attention span so much you probably can’t focus long enough to read this apology all at once. Don’t beat yourselves up about it. As Robin Williams told Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” it’s not your fault. Maybe, if you want to read all of this, you can do it Twitter style, 140 characters at a time.
It really isn’t your fault because you’re addicted to these devices. The people who make smartphones and laptops don’t ask how they’ll affect human beings. But researchers do. They say it’s a physiological thing. Every time you check your Facebook page or email or surf to a new website it triggers what’s known as the orienting response in your brain.
When your environment — sounds, sights, smells, sensations, tastes — changes suddenly, you get a shot of adrenaline in your brain that automatically shifts your attention to what may be a threat to your survival. That shot of adrenaline makes you feel more alert. Every time the scene changes significantly on TV, every time you check email or Facebook, or change the Internet screen on your laptop (which some of you do 40 times an hour), you get that little chemical jolt.
Eventually, you get used to it and need it more often to avoid feeling bored. So you give yourself more shots by multitasking, like surfing the Web while you check text messages while watching TV or sitting in a classroom or at your desk in the office. Pretty soon, you can’t resist the urge to get another fix, and that is addiction. If you say it’s not happening to you, but you check your phone or email every few minutes, you’re exhibiting another sign of addiction: denial. And that’s not your fault, either. No one warned you could get hooked on this entertaining technology. I apologize for that.
I apologize for what this technology is doing to your brain. When you can’t pay attention to any one thing — a magazine article, book, business meeting, classroom lecture, face-to-face conversation — for more than a few minutes, you can’t learn as well, you can’t communicate as well and you can’t think and write as well. Students are doing badly in school and people are losing their jobs and relationships — just because they’re addicted to gadgets. But it’s not your fault.
Nobody told you that inattention blindness would strike when you feel compelled to talk on the phone or text while driving or walking down the street. Your brain diverts most of your attention to the phone and you don’t see what’s going on around you. Cellphone users are walking in front of buses and into buildings and texting drivers are killing themselves and others. I’m sorry the devices don’t come with a warning label. But if your electronic distraction harms someone, police won’t say, “It’s not your fault.” And it won’t help, at that point, if you admit you’re an addict.
Back in 1979, a guy named Neil Postman predicted that television’s fast-changing images would lure people away from reading and thinking and shorten their attention spans. Eventually, he wrote, the thinking part of our brains would atrophy, producing “people whose state of mind is somewhat analogous to that of a modern day baboon.”
I apologize if that offends you. But researchers are already reporting serious deterioration in attention span among those who engage in electronic multitasking. Teachers at every level and employers are complaining about poor school and job performance from people with addiction-impaired attention spans. There are now residential treatment centers for people so dependent on this technology that they can’t deny themselves the “pleasure” of that adrenaline jolt, no matter where they are or who they’re with.
I’m sorry, I really am, that our society let you down. But you can turn this around by developing some self-discipline in your use of technology. I’ll tell you — because manufacturers won’t — that you will probably experience withdrawal (as any addict does) while your brain readjusts to not having that constant adrenaline rush.
Try taking a walk (without an iPod or a cellphone), read a book or schedule more face-to-face time with real people and less Facebook time with electronic “friends.” Rebuilding your attention span will improve your thinking and learning and communicating ability. It might improve your personal life. Remember, it’s not your fault you ended up this way. But it will be your fault if you don’t do something about it.
Mark Kelley, Ph.D., is director of journalism at the New England School of Communications.