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.

Forget About the Joneses

I am not saying anything original when I say that despite the increased connectivity of the age in which we live most people are in fact more disconnected than they were in the past. With the technology that we have today many people are able to be in instant contact with almost anyone almost anywhere in the world. There are tremendous advantages to this, of course. My family can talk to my sister-in-law in Ukraine via Skype and both see and hear her for free. I can chat online or via text message with anyone instantly. Indeed, I can post my rambling thoughts on this blog and anyone around the world can read them within nanoseconds of me clicking “Publish.” There is nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is, though, this increased connectivity via technology has led to decreased connectivity via actual person-to-person in-person interaction. Many people spend far more time e-mailing, texting, talking, tweeting and Facebooking than they do talking face to face.

Another serious part of the disconnect is the separation from reality. When our interaction with others is restricted to what we and others choose to post, text or tweet it is going to be skewed. This filtered reality goes both ways, of course. Some people are much more willing to say something through the intermediary of technology than they would ever be face to face. This usually means a willingness to say things that are offensive, derogatory or hurtful. Children, teens and adults alike seem empowered by technology–emboldened to peck out words on their keyboards or phones and click a button launching those words into cyberspace that they would never have the courage to deliver in person.

At the same time, this filtered reality also leads to people presenting an image that is not entirely accurate. It is more like an airbrushed or Photoshopped version of reality. While some people put anything and everything “out there” for the world to see, the tendency is to post, share, tweet and text that which is “the best.” Technology becomes a personal spin machine or public relations bureau. We tell the world when our children make the honor roll but not when they get sent to the principal’s office. We show everyone our new car but we tend to keep mum about backing into the lamppost across the street. We announce our birdies and hide our double-bogeys, highlight our home runs and keep silent about our strikeouts.

This filtered reality can have a deleterious effect when we are overexposed to it or fail to interact with it while also keeping a firm grip on actual reality. In fact, researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study in which they asked Facebook users, through a series of online questionnaires over two weeks, how they felt about life. The study showed that using Facebook tended to result in a decrease in self-satisfaction and a decline in happiness.

U-M social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article about the study, said, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result—it undermines it.” The complete article appears in PLOS ONE. According to Michigan News, the U-M News Service, the study also found “no evidence that interacting directly with other people via phone or face-to-face negatively influenced well-being. Instead, they found that direct interactions with other people led people to feel better over time.”

Why might the filtered-reality interaction lead to diminished satisfaction and happiness? In the words of one individual quoted by Daniel James Devine in the September 21, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine, “Facebook is like looking at a highlights reel, and then comparing it to the real thing. Comparison is the thief of joy.” In a Facebook-centric world people accumulate friends and then spend hours exposing themselves only to the filtered-reality of those friends’ Facebook personas.

Facebook can be great. So can texting, e-mailing, tweeting, blogging and more. Be very careful, though, to keep a clear head during your filtered social interactions. Do not be fooled by the “highlight reels” your “friends” are sharing–that is not the extent of their lives. Even if it were, comparison and envy is a sure-fire route to sadness and depression. Forget about the Joneses…your happiness should never come from comparing yourself to others.