For a few years, I’ve been affectionately referring to my smartphone as my mind-control device. Let’s all admit that almost all of us are firmly addicted to our smartphones because of the tiny spurts of dopamine (one of the “pleasure chemicals” in our brains) we get when we see our “likes” increasing, or when we read an entertaining article, or when we — once again! — match three of those colourful candies/fruits/jewels. This reward system that has been designed into our smartphones has a huge impact on our thoughts and desires, and has caused what I call a “crisis of attention” in too many of our children and a considerable number of adults as well. For some, smartphones have become parasites.
Parasites are creatures that live by feeding off their hosts, at the expense of these hosts. Our smartphones feed off our attention (and addiction), and some psychologists have pointed to our devices as the reason behind many of us becoming even more stupid than we already are, with some students now unable to focus and sustain attention at a level that can be quite shocking. Of course, there are people who have more of a symbiotic relationship with their smartphones, using them in ways that are beneficial to their own lives, even if they are no less attached to their devices. However, the way I see some of my students use their smartphones worries me — there are students who jump straight to their smartphones after lessons, to feed their faces with whatever video, game, or social media post that catches their fancy. I suspect that for most of them, the smartphone is more parasite than symbiotic helper.
I have this suspicion because I also am surgically attached to my smartphone.
For a period of time longer than I care to admit, I was a little bit too interested in social media and gaming on my phone. As a result, I was slowly but surely growing even more stupid than I already was. Reading still occupied a considerable amount of my time, but much less than it should have. It was a distressing experience realising that I was losing my ability to focus, knowing what to do about it (i.e. not letting social media and games ruin my brain any further), and being unable to actually stop myself. I found myself repeating this cycle over and over again: I would resolve to do something productive, stay on task for half an hour, get distracted by something on my smartphone, and two hours later, realise that I had wasted all that time on something completely trivial.
My solution to this problem was to fill my phone’s home screen with apps that served as reminders for me to make better choices: three dictionaries (Oxford Dictionaries, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and The Free Dictionary), Pocket (an app to save articles for reading later), Overdrive (an eBook reader that allows me to borrow eBooks from the library), and so on. I still spend hours on my phone, but at least most of that time is spent away from trivial games and social media.
I experienced my own crisis of attention, and I am seeing some of my students struggle with theirs. It is simultaneously heartening and saddening when a student gets frustrated with himself because he wants to focus, but finds himself unable to actually do it. Beyond the fact that I can be very boring at times as a tutor, I think that some students are actually now unable to sustain attention because of the way the smartphone structures their experience. When we use our smartphones, our attention needs to be cut up into tiny pieces in order to keep track of the multiple elements that are crying out for our attention. (Click like! This article will amaze you! 5 facts to entertain and amuse you!) This ability to split attention is important especially in our digital age, but if we are not careful, this ability will come at the expense of our power to sustain attention.
The fact that games and social media can sometimes be helpful complicates things (hello, all you digital entrepreneurs), but for most of us, it would probably be healthy to take a good, hard look at what our smartphones are doing to us.
I now spend hours reading on my phone (the National Library Board’s Overdrive is the most wonderful thing), but it sometimes makes me forget that the sensuality of reading a physical book is just so much more enjoyable. My smartphone, perhaps, still controls my mind a little bit too much — but at least it serves me now. Be careful, people, be careful. Do not let your smartphones be your beloved mind-controlling parasites.