Opinion: Refusing To Stoke A Nation’s Attention Deficit

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Spring break has arrived in my school district. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Indeed, my prayer for our nation is that we take the time to appreciate a collective spring break.

I want to be careful in how I say this, as someone who spent more than half of my professional career in the news business:

We need to be intentional in how we address the indictment of Donald Trump. It’s not a matter of politics, per se.

It’s a matter of mental health. Regardless of whether one voted for Trump or for Joe Biden:

Whether one likes him or is indifferent to Biden: a hallmark of his administration has been its low-key approach to governing.

Critics might say he’s not done much, or not done enough.

To me, one important thing he has done is to refuse to stoke a nation’s attention deficit.

By contrast, Trump is not satisfied unless all attention is on him, and there’s little he won’t do or say to get that attention. It matters not to him whether people love him or hate him so long as they focus on him. To that end, the next several weeks and months will feed his appetite.

And – so long as the outcome is what it has been throughout his life – he will amp up the energy, soak in all the focus, and bask in the countless op-eds, televised punditry, and shutdown of daily governing as politicos excoriate or defend him.

Can we try something different?

In this world of iPhones and Apple Watches and every possible way to keep tabs on the drama of the day, can we just stop?

Breathe. Put the devices down.

Go for a walk. Take in the spring. Chat with our neighbors.

Hug our kids, or dogs, or cats (though they won’t like that).

And then, consciously and defining our limits, re-engage with the day’s news.

I’ll never argue for ignorance. An educated citizenry is a necessity for a nation’s survival.

But there’s a difference between spending our time educating ourselves and allowing ourselves to consume a 24/7 anxiety-inducing banquet.

After a couple of decades in the newsroom, I moved to the school counselor’s office, seeing things in different light.

It feels like more and more often, I encounter students (and their parents) who report of above-normal levels of anxiety and/or depression, as well as diagnosed deficits in attention.

It’s not my job to diagnose. Still, I can’t help but wonder:

When we didn’t have access to iPhones and Apple Watches and every possible way to distract ourselves from the task at hand by getting the latest on, say, Donald Trump – were we always this way?

My ruminating stops as I notice the dogwoods and azaleas beckoning.

And my cat Venus is zooming from room to room, trying to get my attention.

Let’s go, Dad!

It’s spring break. Time to enjoy it.

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Chuck Small

Journalist-turned-high school counselor. Happily ensconced in Raleigh, N.C., with hubby of 31 years (9 legal).

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Phylum of Alexandria
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April 3, 2023 7:59 am

Great post, Chuck. Even leaving politics out of it, I feel like my whole life has been dramatically transformed over the past 7 years or so.

Moving to VA was the first time I purchased a smart phone, mainly for navigating the new terrain. At least at first; all of the other functions were soon utilized as well. This time was also when we finally got a real TV with cable service and streaming apps built in. So in one fell swoop, our daily routines got a whole lot more screen tine.

And then the pandemic happened, introducing another dramatic change in daily life. We had to deal with loneliness, isolation, and more free time to kill. Why not fill it with internet apps? Or streaming? Or gaming? Or podcasts? Or audiobooks? Etc.

Not that long ago, I happened upon a podcast conversation about attention, and how our current media habits are weakening our ability to concentrate, and it was the wake up call I had been looking for.

I am now taking steps to get a little closer to my old habits, to at least return to something like our old normal before the pandemic. Reading actual books, sticking to just a few projects, enjoying silence rather than filling it with sound or quick searches. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I already feel better. My concentration isn’t what it used to be, but I’m strengthening it the old fashioned way, via honest to goodness book-learnin’.

Also yes: Our political predicament made this all so much worse. But most of us don’t really benefit from staying plugged in for awareness. The people who act like it’s still 1998 and say “yeah, all politicians are the same” might want to tune in a bit more to get caught up with how crazy things have become. But as for the rest of us, know that the sowers of division benefit from people being too online. We’ve all been doing ourselves much more harm than good by constantly checking in on the state of things.

Vote in every election, no exceptions, and know about the candidates before you vote. Aside from that, you’ll have to judge how much news is just enough to be properly informed, but I guarantee that it’s a lot less than everyone’s consuming now!

mt58
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April 3, 2023 8:20 am

Terrific insights.

Something adjacent to both what you and Chuck are referring to, and something that I’m thinking about a lot a lot lately is attention span.

Everyone remember when YouTube exploded on the scene? One of the things that I considered was how instead of watching a 30 or 60 minute television program, we were now going to be Consuming video entertainment in 10 minute bites.

If you subscribe to the theory of dumbing down or other such de-evolutionary behaviors , now take a look at where we are: TikTok. Videos that last for perhaps as little as five seconds, and then we’re scrolling to the next to see what’s new.

I don’t know much about this, and I have to start reading up on it. But it sure doesn’t feel like it’s a good thing.

Last edited 10 months ago by mt58
Phylum of Alexandria
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April 3, 2023 8:31 am
Reply to  mt58

The podcast I listened to featured Johann Hari, author of the book Stolen Focus. Might be worth checking out.

blu_cheez
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April 3, 2023 1:31 pm
Reply to  mt58

Sorry – lost you there- was watching a blipvert
https://youtu.be/ekg45ub8bsk

lovethisconcept
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April 3, 2023 1:13 pm

For those of us who struggle with ADD, the problem is compounded. So many distractions all the time. Before smart phones, my husband used to tease me because I would have music playing while watching TV and reading a book. Ahh, simpler times.

Last edited 10 months ago by lovethisconcept
mt58
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April 3, 2023 1:21 pm

Here’s this. I’d believe it.

637604AB-5F74-44E2-89D5-03C4A8A98137.jpeg
blu_cheez
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April 3, 2023 1:28 pm

My wife is a doomscroller – first thing awake, she’s reading the news and fretting. I just can’t go there – my first thing (after making sure His Majesty The Cat is taken care of) is a bike ride. I love the idea of the first 45 minutes of my day focusing on nothing more that the 20 feet in front of me, and the music (one earbud only, I promise!) fueling the morning.

I’ve tried several times to get Ms. Cheez to disengage with the news first thing, but she, like you, was a reporter for several years and it’s in her blood.

It’s hard to balance staying informed and staying anxious, especially with all the clickbait articles that make one fear the worst.

Great think piece, Chuck – thank you!

Pauly Steyreen
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April 3, 2023 8:22 pm

Not exactly the same but kind of it is…

Shoshanna Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitism in 2019 was a big wake-up call for me. It’s not just that social media is stealing our attention, it’s that it’s doing so quite intentionally to know everything about us and extract maximum profit from that information. Catching your eyeballs is “engagement” and it is paramount. Whatever content, notification or incentive keeps you scrolling is all that matters. Then every interaction you have with your phone, everywhere you go with your phone (unless you turn off Location services), even things that have nothing to do with an app or social media (e.g. what music or tv show can be heard in the background), gets logged and put into your data profile. It’s omnipresent and insidious. They truly know you better than you know yourself.

Anyway, what little social media exposure I had back in 2019 — a Facebook account and a Twitter account — I permanently deleted. My version of social media is Stereogum and TNOCS. I get news from a newsfeed service or going directly to websites. I’d love to be able to extract Google from my life, but that’s damn near impossible.

News flash: I feel a lot more balanced without social media in my life, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. It was the right move for me.

LinkCrawford
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April 4, 2023 10:34 am

If smartphones weren’t so darned useful, it would be nice to leave them behind. Back in about 2015 or so I went back to a dumb flip-phone for a year or so. But one of the most problematic problems was getting directions. I am a map hound. I love paper maps, but while paper maps can easily get you anywhere across the country, it always used to be a challenge to navigate a new city. You would have to stop and ask directions or buy a local map. You still could do that, but it is difficult.

The other problem was just working with others. There was always the assumption that someone could simply send a link to a document for you to read, or send a link to a website with the information I need. Without a smart phone, you are really limiting the ability to work with others. Not just with co-workers, but with neighbors and relatives and your own children.

And yet…I can support someone that decides to ditch the smartphone. As for me…I probably use mine too much, but I really make an effort to avoid using it at certain times, like during movies, during church, during a presentation.

dutchg8r
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April 4, 2023 1:30 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Funny enough, MrDutch went searching for info on our old map employer the other day. Discovered the production office abruptly closed up shop last March, and they had been buying up all the map companies not named Rand McNally over the past decade. So I’m not sure, but it looks like the fold map and street atlas business of hard copy maps is kaput with them, and they are outsourcing wall maps. Which is around 10 major map company’s worth of decades of production history just left to rot somewhere. An extremely sad demise for the paper map if that is the case.

dutchg8r
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April 4, 2023 12:53 pm

Hear, hear Chuck. I’m catching up here as I eat my lunch sitting outside enjoying the DC sun at the office, grateful I’m not home today with cable news carrying on like Russia has invaded China.

I never held any social media accounts, and don’t ever plan to. Granted, I still feel like I lost my dog if I forget my phone somewhere, but otherwise I have found it is entirely possible to live free from the Social Media/Newsfeed monster. I remain in the know on current events, I could care less about the latest trend on Tik Tok this week, I certainly don’t look to influencers to dictate my life. We chose to live somewhere we can watch spring arrive in full color, with our yard and the neighbors yards changing daily. Birds are scoping out spots on our back porch to nest, it feels like you’re a Chosen One if a pair nest there. We’ve had 2 dove nests and 2 Robin’s nests over the years, but the finches are making their move this year. It’s a fantastic distract from working to just look out the back door and watch the teeny bobbleheads get fed by a parent bird. My own personal nest cam (even though I do check in on area eagle’s nest Webcam throughout spring too – Dulles Greenway by the airport has eaglet triplets!!!)

Can you tell I’ve found my spring routine?!

DanceFever
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April 5, 2023 10:53 pm

Chuck. I’m not going to get into the usual argument of this generation versus that one but it for those of us who have been in teaching (and coaching for decades) versus the ones who have just got into the game, there is a distinct difference.
Whether it’s social media or the Internet, there has been a societal shift on the way the younger generation reacts to day to day life.
I was in the classroom when the first wave hit in the early 2000’s and the students reacted best when I just didn’t recite facts (“We can get those off the internet”) but when I told stories of the past.
Now that I’m in the library, the students react best when you are steady and
reliable (“We like coming up here because it’s a place of quiet and solitude
and you are always the same”).
But we are no longer getting teachers who are in it for the long haul.
The turnover is staggering and I can’t blame them.
We had a young English teacher here several years ago who was very promising but she got married and her husbands job was in San Francisco
so she moved there and is now a big wig in social media and making triple what she was here.
I don’t know how to fight that dynamic but I can only hope that this generation and the next will find people like us who believe in education over the dollar
and get our children on the right path.
Bless you for the good fight.

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