Going Distracted

I am just recently returned from spring break, thus the gap in posts. Thanks for sticking around and coming back to see what’s new!

During the break I finished reading Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last. I do not agree with everything in the book, but he made some good points and had some meaningful insights. Toward the end of the book he has a chapter entitled The Abstract Generation. In it he makes this observation: “Generation Y thinks that, because they have grown up with all these technologies, they are better at multitasking. I would venture to argue they are not better at multitasking. What they are better at is being distracted.”

This observation, in my opinion, is right on target. Far too many of today’s young people think that they need to stimulated all the time. There is no appreciation for silence, there is no time set aside for quiet. They seem to be listening to iPods while surfing the Internet on their iPhones or iPads, simultaneously “watching” the television and probably–allegedly–also working on homework. In reality they are not doing any of these things well, and it’s no wonder, since none of them have their full attention. Unless there happens to be an entire generation of Edgars from David Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series it simply is not possible that that level of over-stimulation is doing anyone any good at all, much less making anyone more proficient at multitasking. Rather than multitasking they are actually semi-tasking–giving semi-attention to a variety of things at once.

There are plenty of studies out there on the impact that this level of stimulation has on the development of the human brain. The brain is impacted not only by this bombardment of stimuli, however, but also by the things that are not happening while the “multitasking” is going on. In their book Deep Brain Learning Larry Brendtro, Martin Mitchell and Herman McCall write about the impact of the society in which we live on our young people. The book’s first chapter is entitled Cultures of Discord, and it begins like this: “Modern society mass produces disconnected children.” They report that today’s teenagers spend approximately 5% of their time with their parents and 2% of their time with other adults, with the remainder of their time spent “with peers, on electronic media, or in isolation.” I might suggest that many teenagers are simultaneously doing all three. It never ceases to amaze me how many times I will see a group of young people, seemingly interacting with each other, but all of them scrolling through the latest status updates on their smartphone or texting madly, thumbs flying every which way. These young people are with their peers physically, but that’s about it. They share an occasional picture or joke or tweet, but they are more likely to text message someone three feet away from them than to engage in real and meaningful relationships with each other. So they are with peers and on electronic media but in reality they are isolated. Their electronic walls are like the shields on the U.S.S. Enterprise, invisible to the naked eye but perfectly capable of repelling an “attack” by someone trying to actually talk to them. What is the result? As Brendtro, et.al. write, “The thinking, values, and identity of many modern youth are being shaped by the subculture of the immature.” (And, sadly, that immaturity is progressively becoming more and more of the mainstream culture!)

During my spring break travels my family and I visited several national parks in Utah and Arizona. As we stood at the Needles Overlook (part of Canyonlands National Park in Utah) we were impressed both by the desolate beauty of the canyon spread before us and the incredible stillness and silence that surrounded us. The Needles Overlook is some twenty-five miles off of the main road and is not widely promoted; indeed, I only ended up there because a colleague who knew where we were headed recommended we check it out. As a result, there were only two other people that we saw while we were out there, and we never spoke to or otherwise interacted with them. We could see for miles and miles in every direction and other than the four in my family and the two others we saw we had no idea who else, if anyone, was anywhere nearby. I cannot imagine what being out there at night would be like. There was no breeze, no air traffic, nothing but the occasional comment from one of us. It struck me how few of us have ever really experienced silence.

The other thing that I am reminded of as I write this is that when we travel we do not have DVD players in the car, my children do not have laptops or tablets or phones. My own phone isn’t even “smart”! We drove more than three thousand miles on our spring break adventure. Sure, we listened to CDs with music and radio dramas but that was it. Other than that we–including my two children–had only the scenery, each other or books to occupy the attention; or, in my case, watching the road! (And, as anyone who has traveled with me knows, “each other” doesn’t amount to much on the stimulation front when one of the “each other” is me. I can go hundreds of miles without saying a word!) Are my children somehow deprived? Not at all. They are learning to appreciate ways of entertaining and occupying themselves other than with all of the “multitasking” options Sinek wrote about. They are learning to take in the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. They are even learning to enjoy silence once in a while!

So I’m with Simon Sinek on this one; the suggestion that Generation Y is better at multitasking because of all of the technology literally at their fingertips is about as accurate as suggesting that they are among the most physically fit generations to ever come along because of the incredible dexterity of their thumbs as a result of texting and video gaming! They’ve mastered the “art” of being distracted. The problem is they have no idea what to do when all of the distractions are taken away. Maybe it’s time we all take a moment to remember Psalm 46:10.