Cell Phones and Short Attention Spans

Attention. Lately, I’ve reflected on it both personally and professionally, the latter with respect to my roles as an occupational therapist (OT) and as a writer. OTs are trained to observe others while they engage in meaningful occupations in order to assess strengths, function, and areas for growth. While I flipped through a printed issue of Real Simple, the following caught my eye and saddened me:

“62 – The percent of kids ages 6 to 12, surveyed by Highlights magazine, who say that their parents are sometimes distracted when they’re trying to talk to them. By what? Big surprise: cell phones (28 percent), followed by siblings (25 percent).” I suspect kids’ complaints of siblings has been around since the beginning of time and will continue to be one of the top complaints in future surveys. However, parents who were distracted by their cell phones beat little Johnny’s concerns that his baby sister gets all of the attention now. The use of smartphones affects us in every area of life: work, education, social interactions, rest/sleep, play, leisure, and activities of daily living.

Shortly after I moved to the UK, I went on a date with a man who lived in London. During the entire meal he attended to his phone numerous times. Our lunch felt like there was another person present that I had to compete with for his attention, only that person was in the form of a phone.

A few years ago I travelled a long distance to visit a friend. During our first meal together she not only placed her phone on the dining room table, but frequently checked it, too. The meal felt awkward. I wondered if she relied on it as a social crutch. Her virtual connection with it trumped my presence even though my friend and I sat across from one another.

I have also found it difficult to concentrate and write in a coherent manner unless my phone has been silenced. The number of pings and notifications doesn’t enhance my quality of life! At times, it makes me feel irritable.

As I work with clients it’s important for me to demonstrate to each person that I’m present, focussed, and not distracted. Most of the time I remember to turn off my phone’s sounds so it won’t interrupt a session. When I need to use it during one I’ll give the client a heads up by saying, “I’m getting out my phone so we can research _____ together” and then proceed to do so where he/she can see my screen. It wouldn’t be appropriate to directly or indirectly give someone a message through my behavior that I wasn’t with him/her during an OT session.

I’m grateful that I can afford to have a smartphone and the power it provides me in one small piece of equipment. It allows me to access the internet, get directions, wake up in the morning, or take photos (among many other features). The technology burst into our lives and exponentially spread into our ways of being in a short period of time. Many professions are analyzing the impact of cell phones on our lives. Whether a person owns one or not, its presence affects us all in some way. Our various roles are impacted by them. They have the potential to negatively affect our relationships if we aren’t careful though.

Ask yourself — do you want to be that person who inadvertently makes others secretly pine, “May I have your attention, please?” because you’re too busy using your smartphone in their presence?

2 Comments to "Cell Phones and Short Attention Spans"

  • Shawn
    June 16, 2015 at 11:27 AM #

    Howdy, I think the issue here is that the technology is changing…but the behavior is still the same. You are in my demographic. Recall the father in the easy chair with the newspaper at arm’s length. Same behavior…lower tech. On buses it used to be newspapers…now its phones and devices. Living in the Bay Area artificially amplifies what we observe. High density, young population, easy access and time to sit on one’s ass and touch the phone in public…creates a false amplification. The rest of the country has the tech…but are less profligate with it. My solution has been to silence the pings, deactivate the notification settings, and to accept that the new tech is merely a tool in the regular expression of the oldest human behavior in the world: TUNING OUT. In addition to this I make a personal effort to tune in…throw in a couple of meditation attempts at the local Zendo…and it absolutely does not matter what some poor deluded fool is doing (or not doing) with their phone.

    • M Terry Bowman
      June 18, 2015 at 6:05 PM #

      Dear Shawn:

      Thanks for your feedback! I agree with your comments about cell phones being an updated version of newspapers as a means of tuning out. There was a time when some people, not all, had the social skills to turn-off a television or put down a newspaper in order to engage with others. Admittedly, I still wear headphones on planes or other forms of public transport as a way to not interact with others sometimes (for my own mental health) because my job requires a lot of social interaction. Before smartphones, I didn’t go on a date where someone was so bold or rude as to read a newspaper right in front of me (as one example). I do believe there was a time before we had access to technology that felt more focussed and less distracted by extraneous sources. I don’t think I’m romanticizing the past.

      I do appreciate your comments – thank you!

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