Let's Focus On Focusing And Phones

I want to tell you that in a world like today, everything’s digressing. I want to say that it’s all because of those damn phones glued to our souls. I want to tell you that by the time my generation is around the age of fifty, we won’t even have to think anymore because computers will do it for us. But I won't. And to be honest, I don’t really want to say it because it’s like an over-played song – it’s been said too much.

Where computers might one day think for you, they’ll never be able to focus for you. So that’s just something you’re going to have to learn to do if you intend on going anywhere. It’s quite interesting how some of us actually have to learn to focus, that’s something we probably never saw coming. And that’s not something I’ve just pulled out of my head, it’s actually a worrying question in science today.

Before we begin, this article has been requested by Jenna Storey, who I am delighted to say, is also the contributor to today’s topic. For the first half of this article, we’re going to zone in on this relatively new research subject on Phone Addictions. In the latter half, with the use of studies and papers (some of which have just been released this year!), to address the question of how phones and other devices are stealing our attention span and focus. Throughout, we’re going to have many insights from Jenna, as to what the facts might mean, why they might be important and how they can benefit and help us to make a change, if change is necessary.

To start, phone addictions have proven quite a difficult thing to diagnose; two people might be on their phones all of the time, with one of them being able to happily walk away, and the other showing withdrawal symptoms once (s)he does. Here, Jenna has given us an account of her experience with walking away from her phone. She states that “When I set [the phone] down in another room for example, I wouldn't be able to focus and would always want to go check it to see who has messaged me. It got quite distracting not having it.” Jenna is not alone in this. It is quite often reported that this feeling of ‘missing out’ is what always seems to take us back to our phones[1]. Where it becomes quite dangerous is that “these effects might happen outside of conscious awareness.”[2]

Jenna brings up that there was a summer camp which she attended in the summer, where she wasn’t allowed her phone for a few days. For a while, it was quite discomforting, saying it was hard for “the first few hours, when I just kept wanting to go on [my phone], or I got bored and wanted it for entertainment. At times I got agitated [because] I didn't have it.” This is quite interesting, and ultimately leads us onto the next point:

Phone addictions are real – it is a thing.

Would anyone have likened phones to a drug before? That’s what they are for some people – a drug. These people - more of us than we know - show various levels of stress, anxiety and discomfort when they are parted from their phones. It is important to take the attention away from the phone specifically, and more to the apps being used, “The higher prevalence of smartphone addiction in persons indicating social networking as the most personally relevant function is in line with previous studies that showed that texting and use of messengers and social media sites were predictors of mobile phone or smartphone addiction” [3]. For example, women are said to have a higher level of addiction to phones than men, because on average, they use their phone for holding and keeping relationships/friendships, more so than the opposite sex. “Men use technology — cell phones in particular — more for entertainment and information... Women use the phone more for maintaining and nurturing social relationships” [4]. This doesn’t mean that men don’t have addiction issue with phones – they certainly do.

Jenna suggests that the science is rather accurate here, using her own friends group as an example, mentioning that “I think, personally, around 60% of my female friends are addicted to their phones compared to around 40-50% of my male friends.” Jenna came to suggest something quite important, an idea I haven’t personally come across yet: as women may be more addicted to their phones, men seem to “have Xbox or PS4 consoles which they can go on instead.” Take a teenage boy away from his video games; would he show the same boredom, and even withdrawal symptoms as a teenage girl who has had her phone taken? I suspect the results would come through to show a strong correlation. Nevertheless, Jenna does concurs, “I do agree that women are maybe more likely to use their phones for maintaining social relationships with others, as that’s what I mainly use mine for. Last week my screen time for entertainment was only three hours on my phone meanwhile social networking and messages was twenty eight hours in the whole week.” I was quite surprised to read that – it’s not as much as I thought it would be. The average college student spends a horrific nine hours a day on their phone! [3]

More importantly than the gender is the age. According to Akjournals, “smartphone addiction was more prevalent in young adolescents (15–16 years) compared with young adults (19 years and older)” [3]. This is quite worrying; if the rate of phone addiction has started at such a young age, what will it be like when they have grown to be adults. Once we’ve all aged, and are the first to ever fully grow up with a phone, how will that then effect us? Our contributor suggests that “I think we will get less attached to our phones as most of our daily lives will be consumed by work and maintaining relationships with partners.” Providing a counter-balanced argument, Jenna continues; “But on the other hand I also think [phone addictions] could get worse as the world is slowly becoming more digitalised and society is changing.”

What was said to be a better judge of phone addiction – as opposed to how long you spend on your phone – was how soon do you get on your phone in the morning once you have woken up, “Regarding smartphone use, our multivariate analyses demonstrated that duration of use and time until first use in the morning provided better indicators for smartphone addiction than use frequency - rather than how long you spent on your phone, how long is it when you pick it up in the morning?” [3]. This source states it quite clearly, “Smartphone addiction has been defined as the overuse of smartphones to the extent that it disturbs the user’s daily lives”

If we take this further again, the situation can get really bad, “Although the mutual influences of excessive smartphone use, stress, and physical activity needs further examination, the results of the present and existing studies showing associations between electronic media use at night and depression and sleep disturbances indicate that excessive smartphone use might have adverse effects on several indicators of mental and physical health” [3]. However, there is light to be shed, suggested the same study; “When used moderately, a smartphone may contribute to improving emotional and psychological well-being. In addition, smartphone communications can be used to relieve stressful situations” What do they mean by ‘moderate’? When does it become extreme? These are questions that should probably be answered sooner rather than later.

Lets move on to our focus and attention span. Before we attack any point, this idea of ‘multitasking’ has to come to an end. Clearly, multitasking means “The engaging in more than one activity at the same time or serially, switching one's attention back and forth from one activity to another”. It does not mean that you can do two things at exactly the same time. That, for humans, is literally not possible. You can only focus on one thing. So if you’re on your phone and watching TV, you’re not multitasking, you’re simply switching between the two very fast. This is the main killer of focus. By definition, focus is “a center of activity, attraction, or attention” [5]. Whereas just a few years ago this would have been a hard thing to do, the younger generation seems to be quite good at it today, “New research is showing that younger brains can process information faster than previous generations, and so they can transition from task to task more easily” [6]. That’s all well and good, but it’s not really; “this research also is revealing a key counter-theme: Older adults may be mentally superior in their ability to focus and learn due to a more resilient and long-lasting attention span”. Therefore, on average, adults were more likely to see a task from start to finish. It would be alright if the younger generation could go from start to finish with many distractions and attention breaks, but they can’t – at least not very well.

Our lack of focus can even affect our relationships; “we found evidence [phones] can have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality. These results demonstrate that the presence of mobile phones can interfere with human relationships, an effect that is most clear when individuals are discussing personally meaningful topics”[7].

However (attempting to remain as objective as possible here), the science is showing that the younger generation with all of the distractions at hand, are consequently able to filter out irrelevant bits of information faster and more efficiently than adults. Adults fail to do things like “filter out irrelevant information… which is why conversations are often challenging in a busy restaurant” where as kids seem to be just fine with it. To what degree, wasn’t specified. This is the brain once again showing its ability to adapt incredibly fast [6].

The real downfall to all of this is that we fail to retain the ability to control our thoughts. They begin to become very sporadic, immediate and unpredictable. This means that we’re getting worse and worse at stopping our mind from wandering. Equally, we get caught up with the smallest and most meaningless problems instead of paying attention to what really matters. So much for our super ability to filter out irrelevant information.

Aarp.org states “Similarly, a single notification on your phone weakens your ability to focus on a task, researchers at Florida State University found. Those notifications may be short, but “they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering,” ". This is a real danger, it can lead to many tricky mental situations, sleep problems, and in turn many other things that we’re not here to talk about. Jenna implies that she is rather familiar with the situation, “I have experienced this, for example if I was reading a book and I got a notification, I would normally try and ignore it. But then I would get curious as to who messaged me or what the notification was, which would cause me to lose focus on my book.” She also mentions that notifications would have often disrupted her sleep. The easy fix is obviously clicking that ‘Do Not Disturb’ button. I’m still surprised as to how many people still don’t do this today.

This lack of focus becomes a life characterised by “fragmented attention,” which “can produce exhaustion and anxiety” [6]. This is something that I personally struggle with today – as many of us do. On the other hand, Jenna revealed, “Fortunately, I haven’t had much experience with this state of mind but I’m sure it would be quite a struggle to cope with.” To a degree, she does agree with the validity of the statement, “If you were in a place of study like school or university and you had fragmented attention, this could cause you to get behind on work or not understand a topic... and this may cause anxiety.”

We must remember, as Jenna brought up, that this isn’t just the younger population. Adults seemed to have adapted incredibly quickly, for people who had once lived a very different life. These problems are highly prevalent for the older generations too, as Jenna adds; “When my mum is cooking and she gets a notification from her phone she instantly goes to check it. I think this is similar to most people, as soon as they hear the noise they go to pick up their phone and ignore what they were previously doing.”

Do I have any suggestions as to what you could do to stop this? None of my own, but you can find them dotted everywhere online. The point of this article was not to tell you that you need to change how you do things, but to simply just make you aware of what exactly it is that you’re doing, and what it’s doing to you. I’m not insisting change, that’s up to you, if you want to do it. I know what my decision is, you just have to choose what yours is. If you want to continue with this sporadic life style, that’s fine, now you know the ups and downs of it. You weigh it out. I highly recommend you do more research before you make any sort of specific long term choice.

There is no better summary to this article than Jenna's underlying reason for requesting it: "I suggested this topic as I think it is quite relevant to today’s society. Also, people don’t really think of it as a problem, or think anything much of it at all . It is important that some people should learn or have information about topics that are related to their day to day life. I think change would be good, we need to stop living our life’s through screens and live them through our own eyes instead. But I do understand there are many benefits of having a phone as well."

Before we leave it there, there’s one more thing I would like to bring up. Back to Jenna’s summer camp, she revealed that “by the second day [with no phone] it was sort of peaceful as I had no pressure to reply to messages or check if anyone had messaged me. I would say it is quite a good thing to take a break, but the first few hours won't be easy.” Taking a break from a drug is never easy, but there can be the benefits – a degree of peace.

I want to say a massive thank you to Jenna Storey for putting her time and effort into this article, and for suggesting the topic.

If you have an idea, question or topic you would like me to research, review and write about, I would truly love to. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask me – it would be my pleasure. If anyone would like to contribute to an article on any particular topic please let me know, I would love to work with you.

Jack, in collaboration with Jenna Storey, at Interconnected.


[1]: https://www.houkconsulting.com/2018/03/smartphones-affect-focus/

[2]: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0265407512453827

[3]: https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2006/4/4/article-p299.xml?rskey=AwiCwm&result=2

[4]: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/watch-out-cell-phones-can-be-addictive

[5]: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/focus

[6]: https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2017/mental-focus-smartphone-use.html

[7]: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0265407512453827


If you would like to contact Jenna personally for any reason, you can add her on instagram @jennastoreyy


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