Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in the New York Times. Digital devices don’t even destroy our attention spans. “We can focus,” he writes. But we may not want to.”
In a 2012 Pew survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said their students can’t pay attention the way they could a few years ago.
It may be that digital devices have not left us unable to pay attention, but have made us unwilling to do so.
The digital world carries the promise of amusement that is constant, immediate and limitless. If a YouTube video isn’t funny in the first 10 seconds, why watch when I can instantly seek something better on BuzzFeed or Spotify? The Internet hasn’t shortened my attention span, but it has fixed a persistent thought in the back of my mind: Isn’t there’s something better to do than what I’m doing?
. . . People’s performance on basic laboratory tests of attention gets worse if a cellphone is merely visible nearby. In another experiment, people using a driving simulator were more likely to hit a pedestrian when their cellphone rang, even if they had planned in advance not to answer it.
Digital devices encourage “near constant outwardly directed thought” at the expense of time for reflection, Willingham concludes. “A flat cap on time with devices — the restriction we first think of for ourselves and our kids — might help.”