Rehabilitating Ferals of the Digital Age
Eating books, training deep attention, and a practical guide to reading
Our recent transatlantic flight from Switzerland back to Canada proved to be an “accidental detox” for passengers, as to the horror of most, there were no screens on the seat backs, and no charging ports for devices. After the first gasps of surprise and dismay (especially of parents with small children) subsided, a wonderful scene unfolded. I had no idea so many people still read books! The photo below is the view across the row from me. The plane was humming with conversation; two men behind me who had never met before, struck up a conversation (a joy to listen to Scottish accents) and shared beers and stories, children played paper games, and our family rotated through reading Thomas Hardy, Seinfeld scripts, Ian McEwan, C.S. Lewis, and Calvin and Hobbes (something for every age and interest). It seemed like a flight in a time machine, where people still remembered how to converse, play, read books, and spend time away from black mirrors.
The following daypondered aloud on Notes, if people were to jettison their screens, how long it would take for minds and attention spans to return to “normal”, leading to wonder further, “We Gen-X and older have a default to go back to. What do we do for people born after 1995 who don’t?”
Thinking about this question more deeply, I realized that the offspring of the digital age have grown up as attentional and relational ferals. Many have grown up isolated from deep attention from a very young age, have social behaviour stilted by online interactions, and suffer from emaciated language skills. While the “accidental detox” flight did ignite some hope in me regarding people’s ability to engage their minds differently, this scene could only occur because people were left no other choice. I am also quite sure that that everyone quickly reverted to their usual patterns of distraction as soon as they were off that flight.
There are a myriad of things that make us human. But the ability to pay attention lies at the core. Relationships require attentive listeners; learning takes dedicated attention to grow knowledge and skills; reading demands attention to words, meaning, and context; work demands attention to produce carefully crafted products or services; democracy involves attention to truth and opposing positions; faith requires attention for prayer, silence, and reading scripture. Attention is it.
When deep attention has to compete with hyper attention (fractured attention that quickly zips from one point of focus to the next), it is akin to throwing a dolphin into a tank filled with piranhas and hoping that they will find a way to coexist. Although we are prone to fool ourselves, there cannot really exist a “healthy balance” between dolphins and piranhas.
I discussed this attentional issue in a couple of earlier articles (such as TikTok-Time is running out for saving our children's brains), relating accumulating research on the detrimental effects of digital device use, especially on children and youth. In this Wall Street Journal article, Michael Manos, clinical director of the Center for Attention and Learning at Cleveland Clinic states that, “Directed attention is the ability to inhibit distractions and sustain attention and to shift attention appropriately…If kids’ brains become accustomed to constant changes, the brain finds it difficult to adapt to a non-digital activity where things don’t move quite as fast.”
The current generation is habituated to switching tasks every few seconds. Indeed in 2017, before the new crop of social media apps, a study found that even undergraduates, who are more cerebrally mature than K–12 students and therefore have stronger impulse control, “switched to a new task on average every 19 seconds when they were online.” 19 seconds. I cannot think of one coherent task that only takes 19 seconds to fully complete. Even brushing your teeth takes longer.
Paul Bennett, the director of Halifax-based firm Schoolhouse Institute and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University explains that, “the more time young people spend in constant half-attentive task switching, the harder it becomes for them to maintain the capacity for sustained periods of intense concentration. A brain habituated to being bombarded by constant stimuli rewires accordingly, losing impulse control. The mere presence of our phones socializes us to fracture our own attention. After a time, the distractedness is within us.” Near constant distraction by phones and other tech has serious side-effects, especially for reading. No wonder that by 2016, just 16 percent of 12th-grade students read a book or magazine on a daily basis.
This post is not intended as a lament, but as a starting point for rehabilitating attentional ferals of the digital age, whether they be young or old. All of us who use digital devices are affected by the easy lure of hyper attention, and if our aim is — assuggests, “to be anchored to our core meanings in life and situate technology’s proper place in the order of things” — then it is up to us to train, grow, and reestablish deep attention.