Unending exposure to information hurting ability for us to concentrate

We hear and read all the time that people’s attention spans are shrinking with each generation; with so many products designed for instant gratification, this is hardly surprising. Apps for smart phones and tablets are designed for quick bursts of playing or using—when one is standing in line, riding the bus, waiting for someone, etc.

Websites are designed to capture your attention for a brief moment as you scan through web pages, skim articles and breeze through lists. Everything is designed for instant results.

At first, it’s hard to notice the effect on yourself. It becomes harder to sit down and read a book. Waiting for ten minutes feels like an eternity. There’s a need to always have something to do or look at.

It’s a struggle to focus on one project for long periods of time. We’re all guilty of multi-tasking, and there is nothing wrong with it in moderation. But when you have fifteen tabs open in your browser, only a couple of which are related to the project you’re supposed to be working on, suddenly multi-tasking turns into procrastination and then into wasted time. And there are other consequences to consider too.

I realized recently, as I had those fifteen tabs open and was looking at news websites, checking the weather and doing some online shopping, that it was hard to just sit and read an article. It was an article that I’d chosen to read, it was on an important and relevant topic, and it was poignant.

Yet, I could only get a third of the way through before I got bored, scrolled down, realized how long it was and stopped reading. We’re all guilty of this. It’s hard to commit. Particularly as college students, it’s hard to commit to spending your time doing a single task when there are so many other things you need and/or want to do.

I got to thinking about the time when there were only five channels on TV, and cable wasn’t even a glimmer in the inventor’s mind. Coverage of the Vietnam War dominated the news during the 1970s, and many people tuned in each night to watch the evening news and find out what had happened that day. I realize that things have changed, and our perspective has widened, but there are still horrible, tragic wars raging today, and many people are just simply not interested.

Sure, we’ll read part of an article on the topic, but most of the time, it’s lost somewhere in the depths of our minds, waiting to be dragged out when someone initiates a discussion of politics or global issues over coffee or tea late at night.

Thinking in particular of the war in Syria, I read an article on the BBC website which talked about a recent outbreak of polio. Polio. The living conditions are so poor, and so many people have become refugees, that children aren’t getting essential vaccinations and diseases which have become practically unknown in the United States and the West are breaking out in large numbers.

Remember that funny sounding set of shots you had to get when you were a baby for measles and the mumps? Well, measles is spreading in Syria as well. It is estimated that approximately 500,000 children have not received the vaccine for polio. And yet, before the American Civil War, 95 percent of children had been immunized.

But did you hear about any of this? Probably not. More likely, you heard that Lou Reed died, posted a brief message in memory of him on your social networking sites, and moved on to looking at pictures of cats. Who is to blame for this?

Is it the media, for encouraging the spread of news more palatable for the public, which will be received better? Or is it the population, who has not learned how to seek out this information? One could argue, why should it have to be sought out? Shouldn’t things like this be front-page news?

Well perhaps, but people get tired of news of war, famine, plague and of disaster. People know that things are bad; why would they want to hear about it all the time? What about the good deeds, the heroes, and the salvation of humanity?

Our perception has become distorted by our attention span. We can tolerate short bursts of depressing news. We will read about war, but only if it is in a concise, uncomplicated form. At the same time, a hilarious cat video which has 26 million views on YouTube may be only thirteen seconds long, but you won’t watch it more than a couple times.

It gets boring. Our ability to gain satisfaction from long-term projects has diminished. We want something new, something original, something distracting. We need gratification, and we need it now.


—Lily Elbaum ’16 is a prospective independent major.

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