As I write this article, I will check my email at least three times and check my phone five times. I’m not waiting for a particular message, but I will repeatedly pick up my phone to glance at it then put it back down. When I look back at my computer screen, I will have to backtrack for a few minutes to relocate my train of thought. I will hardly notice having done so, but I will have just demonstrated the way in which college students go through each day, from start to finish.
Most of us don’t deny our ease of access to today’s ever-evolving technology is hurting our attention span. But at what point does this problem become detrimental enough, both to individual lives and to society as a whole, that it should be dealt with directly?
The University of Washington thinks the issue is salient enough to warrant directing university resources toward re-teaching students how to focus. The course “Information and Contemplation” steers students to monitor how they spend time on the computer, how it makes them feel and where their minds wander. They are instructed to meditate throughout the day, free of technological interruptions.
Students have reacted positively to the exercises, reporting their ability to focus on specific tasks improved. But should a school invest in a whole course devoted to teaching students to resist the dependence on technology and its detrimental effects on productivity?
30 years ago, a college course with this premise would never have been taken seriously. Taking the time to teach young adults how to focus on a task would seem ridiculous and indulgent.
But our generation works in a radically different environment than that of our parents. They faced only a fraction of today’s distractions, and they were not addicted to constant and new stimulation the way we are. That’s right: addicted. When you receive a text message or watch a new video, a small amount of dopamine is released in your brain, which yields a spurt of pleasure. As a generation, we are addicted to this pleasure.
It’s a problem that should be addressed before we’re flitting from task to task like goldfish. But is a semester-long college course really the place to do so? I commend the professor’s recognition of the attention issue and his tactics to resolve it, but I refuse to believe we are incapable of stirring up a little old-fashioned self-discipline to rein our wandering minds back in. This course should be limited to a lecture or seminar that would motivate students, handing them the tools to slow things down and take control of their wandering minds.
Email Emily Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org.