Digital Technologies: Are They Hindering Our Ability to Focus?

By Aadit Jain (‘23)

The New York Times reports that the “typical American worker focuses on a given task for just three minutes” (Schwartz). This should actually come as no surprise as the article further reports that the average person touches their phone 2,000 times every day and spends 3 hours on them. 

The article also features a conversation with Johann Hari, the author of “Stolen Focus,” a book in which he details how technology has caused us to lose our focus. Hari emphasizes the importance of self-discipline and even shares an example of his own determination to escape from his smartphone. After spending three months in Massachuesttes completely offline, Hari, as he puts it, “was stunned by how much my (Hari’s) attention came back. I (Hari) could read books for eight hours a day” (Schwartz). He realized, however, that completely avoiding screen time is not the solution: his ability to focus had once again gone down just months after receiving his phone. Instead, he says, lifestyle changes such as getting a healthy amount of sleep can help us maintain our focus and achieve a good balance. 

In recent years, there has been increased attention to news of digital technology hurting our ability to focus. What could be the drawbacks to our increasing reliance on our smartphones, for example? As Vox reports, as more parents in Silicon Valley limit their kids’ screen time, it raises the question of what are the impacts of such devices on our health. 

Vox in the same article reports several conversations with neurologists on the impact of digital technologies on our brains. While many questions remain unanswered, the information provided useful insight into this topic, including the relation to memory capacity, lack of focus, and stress.

One important point brought up by the neurologists was the impact of digital technology on kids and teenagers, whose minds are still in development. While many advantages exist to such technologies, one must be aware of their drawbacks as well. In the same article published by Vox, Gary Small, author of iBrain and director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute, comments that there can be negative impact on memory and neurological development, even though there are no studies published yet to confirm this. Susanne Baumgartner, who works at the Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media at the University of Amsterdam, details her concerns on the impacts of social media and smartphones on adolescents’ attention and sleep patterns. While she cannot pinpoint the exact correlations due to the lack of studies on this, she empathizes with the need for more research on the topic. 

For teenagers and adults, it still remains important that screen time is limited and lifestyle adjustments are made in order to achieve a healthy balance. 

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