By Alex Covert '21
Here’s a fun fact: Did you know the average human attention span is eight seconds? That means mathematically (snaps fingers), with that snap half of you are mentally gone. To put that timespan in perspective, the same study concluded the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. What’s even scarier is that an earlier study determined the average human attention span in 2000 to be 12 seconds. So the question is, what’s causing this newfound inability to focus?
It’s obvious that there’s a correlation between visual media usage (i.e. television, video games, and social media) and a decrease in our ability to concentrate. Now, I’m not saying that all technology is bad - if I were, I'd be taking a horse and buggy to school every day. In fact, I’d argue that the benefits of technology outnumber the cons: the world’s information at the tip of your fingers, the ability to stay connected to others thousands of miles away, more developed visual literacy and information processing abilities from using this technology. However, there are still many cons that often go unchecked.
One frequently seen negative about technology is our reliance on it - assuming that it will always be there for you to look something up. I learned this the hard way, when my tire blew out as I was driving 80mph on the interstate. For those of you who don’t know car terminology, a tire blowout is basically a flat on steroids - the tire drastically loses air from a gigantic gash, which makes the car almost uncontrollable since you’re driving with three wheels. Blowouts often happen at high speeds (as was the case for me) where the car can spin uncontrollably (which it did) or even flip (which it didn’t). Fortunately no other cars were around, I was unhurt in the incident, and most importantly, the car came out unscathed, minus a detached tire that’s still on 565 to this day. After a quick prayer of thanks, I did as any handy man would have and dialed AAA, who proceeded to send a mechanic out to install my spare with the tools in my trunk, and everything was all swell and dandy.
Now, let’s pause, and review that last sentence: a mechanic “installed MY spare, with the tools in MY trunk.” It was my equipment, but I didn’t know how to use it. I remember the conversation with my dad about how to use that equipment if ever needed. I also remember my thoughts during that talk: I’ll just call AAA. Now, when you have a potentially life-ending incident like that, you tend to rethink your views, and I definitely rethought the, “Oh I’ll just call AAA” moment. If my tire had blown out in the middle of nowhere with no reception, I wouldn’t be able to call AAA. I wouldn’t be able to look up on youtube or wikihow “how to change a tire.” The phone would still have its uses. I could listen to downloaded music while crying scared and alone in the forest or use the flashlight to scare away wildlife. But the point still stands: without reception, I was screwed.
"Are we being content creators or consumers? Are we developing an app or playing on one? Are we learning something new or repeating the same routine?"
This made me realize that a major problem with our generation is our dependence on technology, specifically the communicating and entertaining aspects of it. The average teen spends eight hours a day on their phone. That’s a third of their day, half of their awake time assuming they’re getting the recommended amount of sleep (which they probably aren’t). That’s not counting television or gaming. When asked if they could go without their phone for a day, too many teenagers say they couldn’t. I know this complaint has been filed many times before, whether it’s from a parent or from a documentary like Screenagers. The response is usually the same: something along the lines of “OK boomer.” Once again, I’m not saying there’s no benefits to technology - school wouldn’t be possible right now without communication platforms like zoom - but if we’re honest with ourselves, how much of those 8 hours of screen time are spent productively. Are we being content creators or consumers? Are we developing an app or playing on one? Are we learning something new or repeating the same routine?
I wasn’t planning on talking about technology for this speech. I was going to talk about something applicable to current events - being optimistic, being open-minded, being thankful - but I realized that technology is the most current-event applicable topic of all. COVID-19 is going to be the catalyst for a swarm of technological innovation, and while this wave of invention will benefit humanity immensely, we still need to be wary of the setbacks from this brave new world. We’re starting to see these effects already: suicide and overdose rates have spiked since the onset of the coronavirus. Months of isolation have caused people to bottle up their rage, bitterness, and impulse, and we’re starting to see these emotions overflow into violence, bigotry, and hatred as one side fights for a positive change and the other defends the proper status quo. People are more angry, frightened, and alone than ever before, and it’s being caused by a transition to life over a screen, a way of life that our species isn’t built for.
This virtual world has also been killing productivity. Despite having more free time than ever before, many people are still feeling rushed or behind on their work. Isolation doesn’t benefit productivity - I can vouch for that. I wasted too much of my summer playing video games and watching tv, and while I was still able to accomplish much this summer, including a part-time job and valuable college research and information sessions, I still felt strained when I had two weeks left until the start of school and I still had about 10 biozones, a personal narrative, senior speech, summer reading book, and senior privileges checklist to complete before the start of the year. Compared to other procrastination stories, mine might not sound terrible, but that won’t stop me from kicking myself as I’m trying to juggle college applications with the rest of my course load down the road.
"The bottom line is, new technology provides opportunity on a scale never seen before in human history, but the challenge will be properly utilizing it."
The bottom line is, new technology provides opportunity on a scale never before seen in human history, but the challenge will be properly utilizing it. I see in front of me some of the smartest and most determined people I’ve ever met. I see all of this potential, not just you guys, but everyone in our generation, and it’s being squandered. An entire generation wasting away, browsing their feed, watching their shows - slaves to the screen. We have a society telling us that no matter our habits we’ll be tech moguls, movie stars, and professional athletes - but we won’t, not without the right motivation, not without the right self-discipline.
The opportunity is there - we just have to seize it. What many of our ancestors had to sacrifice so much for, we get on a silver platter that’s taken for granted. Survival of the fittest is a thing of the past, with the only reason many of us physically exert ourselves being for looks or sports. The 21st century has brought with it a much more tolerant and inclusive society. The age of automation has removed most menial tasks from our to-do lists, so we can focus on something greater. Yet this technology has removed one crucial element of the human psyche: reason to be. Our generation has no challenges or meaning, our greatest struggle as of now being to stay at home for the sake of others. Our problems include not looking good in pictures, not getting enough attention on your social media accounts, or accidentally killing your dog in minecraft. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a mental war, and our great depression would be losing it. Our great question is how we win that war.
For starters, setting a time limit for yourself can do the trick. When I was on my phone during the summer I set a 1-hour timer to remind myself, “Hey, I’ve been on this for a bit.” It doesn’t always serve as a “get-off” time but it helps me stay self-aware as I’m procrastinating. For television, I tell myself to only watch a couple episodes at a time (such as 45 minutes of Lost or two, 22 minutes episodes of The Office) to decrease my chance of binge-watching those shows. In video games (or at least the ones I play), there are obvious points in the game where it makes sense for me to take a break such as completing an objective, finishing a match, or earning an achievement. Future strategies I plan to implement are the 50/10 rule, where one spends 50 minutes working and 10 minutes goofing off, and the “daily tasks strategy,” where you don’t check your phone or watch a show until you complete at least one of the tasks you required yourself to complete during the day and take your technology breaks as you progress through your to-do list. I can’t speak to how appealing these methods may sound to you, but I can speak to their success: they’ve allowed me to use my time and my technology more productively and to keep technology’s distractions from distorting what I truly want in life. Do I want a picturesque life or a meaningful one?
So next time you pull out your phone or turn on the tv, enjoy its benefits, the feelings of recharging and relaxation that the dopamine rush from getting onto those devices provides to many. Recognize that you enjoy a lifestyle of pleasure that very few others throughout time have experienced. Understand that you don’t depend on technology, but technology depends on you, and always remember not just what technology provides for, but what technology can allow for, and that if used properly, humanity can both seize its potential and not have an attention span less than that of a goldfish.