We say we turn to our phones when we’re “bored.” And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment. We are forever elsewhere. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us and then when it doesn’t, we look to our devices to find something that does. There is now a word in the dictionary called “phubbing.” It means maintaining eye contact while texting.
Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Publishing Group.
Losing to A Goldfish
Cue a terrifying trend: our attention span is dropping with each passing year. In 2000, before the digital revolution, it was twelve seconds, so it’s not exactly like we had a lot of wiggle room. But since then it’s dropped to eight seconds.
To put things in perspective, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds.[i]
Yes. That’s right. We’re losing, to goldfish.
But the odds are not in our favor. There are literally thousands of apps and devices intentionally engineered to steal your attention. And with it your money.
Reminder: Your phone doesn’t actually work for you. You pay for it, yes. But it works for a multibillion-dollar corporation in California, not for you. You’re not the customer; you’re the product. It’s your attention that’s for sale, along with your peace of mind.[ii]
Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
[i] Kevin McSpadden, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” Time, May 14, 2015, http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish.
[ii] This idea comes from Seth Godin’s great blog post “When Your Phone Uses You,” Seth’s Blog (blog), September 30, 2016, https://seths.blog/2016/12/when-your-phone-uses-you.
In this excerpt from Jay Y. Kim’s book, Analog Church, the author shares about an experience at a local restaurant after being convicted of his own smart phone use at home, keeping him from being present with his family:
… I was having lunch alone. The restaurant was near a local high school which has an open campus policy, so shortly after I sat down to eat, several students began to file in together for a quick bite before heading back to class. Once again, I’d been on my phone—this time actually checking email. But when I saw the students walk in, I decided to people watch for a while, paying special attention to how they would interact while sharing a meal. What I saw saddened me but did not surprise me.
In total, fourteen students ate at that restaurant during the lunch hour, all of them sitting in friend groups, not a single one of them alone. And in total, thirteen of them had a phone in their hands for the vast majority of the time, occasionally looking up to chat with one another, but for the most part, losing themselves to their digital content, all while sitting so tantalizingly close to other actual human beings.
They were, in the words of Sherry Turkle’s aptly titled book, “alone together.” Entranced by the endless sea of digital possibilities, these kids were missing out on the very unique gift of analog presence surrounding them. While they were busy communicating with the digital world (many of them sending texts and Snapchat messages), they were squandering the opportunity to commune with the real people in their midst. This is what community often looks like in the digital age. Lonely individuals falling prey, over and over again, to the great masquerade of digital technology—the ability to lull us into a state of isolation via the illusion of digital connection.
I Forgot My Phone
Below is the description of this short video, posted on youtube, click the link below the description to watch:
Imagine a day when a young woman’s daily routine unfolds normally, with one exception: She forgot her phone. She wakes up in the arms of her lover who idly strokes her arm as he does his email. At a birthday party, guests fuss over getting a picture of the cake.
When it’s time for a celebratory toast, the focus is on taking photographs of the champagne. A lunch with friends is silent—everyone is on a phone. When she goes bowling and makes a strike, none of her friends give her a high five; they’re all texting. She can’t share a moment of laughter with her boyfriend when they go out to a comedy club. He has replaced actual laughter with a post “about laughter” that he shares with his online friends.
Missing the Trees in the Forest
Years ago, my family and I visited Sequoia National Park in California. The highlight of this trip was seeing the Giant Sequoia redwoods, after which the park is named. These trees are awe-inspiring, both for their beauty and their size. The largest redwood in the national park is the General Sherman tree, which towers above the forest at 275 feet in height. It is also 25 feet in diameter, with an estimated age over 2500 years.
As my family and I ambled among the giant redwoods, drinking in their exceptional elegance, I noticed a teenaged boy walking along with his family. His eyes were transfixed, not by the trees, but rather by his Game Boy device. (Today, it would be his smartphone.) He was engaged in some sort of video game that demanded his full attention.
I was both fascinated and distressed by this boy’s apparent unawareness of the extraordinary beauty all around him, so I continued to look his way every now and then throughout our tour of the big trees. Sure enough, as near as I could tell, he never once lifted his eyes to gaze upon some of the most beautiful and astounding of God’s creations.
As I think about this boy today, I feel sad. My sadness is not just for him, though. I feel sad for so many others who are just like him. I would confess there are times when I am one of these people. I can get so wrapped up in whatever is demanding my attention that I neglect the beauty of God’s creation.
Sometimes I’m caught up in work. Sometimes I’m blinded by worry. Often, what keeps me from delighting in beauty is my ever-present hand-held device. I don’t have a Game Boy, but I do have a smartphone that calls to me its siren’s song.
Targeting our Attention Gaps
Smartphones make it possible for the attention economy to target our little attention gaps as we transition between tasks and duties. Our attention may be slightly elastic enough to fill up every empty gap of silence in our days, but in the end it’s still a zero-sum game. We have limited amounts of time to focus in a given day, and now every second of our attention can be targeted and commoditized.
Nokia Phone Survey, 2013
The average person uses their cell phone every six minutes and checks their phone 150 times a day.
A Photo-Filled World
Have you ever wondered how many photographs are taken every day across the world? Europeans, with all of their scenic locations, take the least number of pictures per day, but it’s still probably higher than you think: just under 5. From there the number goes up significantly, with America unsurprisingly in first place.
How many pictures do Americans take each day? Over 20! 20.2 to be exact. This means that every two minutes, more photographs are taken across the world than all of humanity did in the 1800s. What do we take pictures of, well selfies for one, 92 million selfies are taken each day. As of 2022, about 85% of those pictures will be taken on devices we call “smartphones” but are probably would better be described as computers with a phone and a camera attached.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Young People and Smartphones
Fully 93% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners in the experience sampling study used their phone at least once to avoid being bored, with respondents in this age group reporting that they did so in average of 5.4 surveys over the one-week study period. Similarly, 47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period, roughly three times the proportion of older smartphone owners who did so.
Aaron Smith, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015,” Pew Research Center for Internet, Science, and Technology, April 1, 2015, www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015