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Tech addict nation: Can we kick the habit?

Bill Snyder | Oct. 3, 2012
People who can't put down their smartphones and tablets aren't just rude, they're addicts, and the Internet and mobile devices continue to mess with their self-control and attention spans. But there are ways to curb the addiction.

There's something else going on here as well. Constant use of the Web and mobile devices doesn't just affect our behavior, it also appears to be shortening our attention span. "Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention," wrote Nicolas Carr in a 2010 book called "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

Carr marshals a good deal of evidence drawn from work which argues that the use of digital technology is actually changing not just what we do, but how we think.

He refers us to the work of Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA development psychologist who studies the use of media and its effect on learning: "Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."

Or as Carr puts it: "We're becoming, in a word, shallower." So not only are we addicted to our devices, the content we consume on those devices makes us even less likely to focus on a given task.

The most egregious example of a dangerous, tech-induced shriveled attention span is the appalling practice of texting and checking email while driving. That, by the way, is not restricted to Americans. When I was in Hanoi a few years ago, I was horrified to see young people texting while driving motorcycles. That's even worse than interrupting a Sonny Rollins concert. 



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