The Distraction Machine


Smartphones, televisions and computer screens dominate our consciousness. You cannot live a day in a modern city without seeing one or the other. It seems probable that the exposure is causing us a lot of trouble. Our brains are certainly not wired to handle the amount of screens we are forced to look at.

An obvious example of this is how the light from a computer screen tricks your brain into behaving as if it is daytime long past sundown. I want to unpack this a bit, because it is worth understanding: All brains have their circadian rhythms thrown off by exposure to screens past sundown. This is the name for the cycle of hormones which are released from morning to night. Part of the light from screens literally causes your brain to behave as if it is another time of day.

The brain is the most complicated part of a human. We know how fingers work pretty well. Your skin feels cold when ice touches it. But brains are a total mystery. Because they are so mysterious, we can only assume any wrench thrown into the gears will have a cascading effect throughout the rest of the system. Most likely a bad one.

There is a saying that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” In the case of cognitive problems from smartphone usage, I’m sure what we don’t know is enormous. And I am suspicious most people are giving their smartphones way more of a free pass than they should.

Here is a perfect example. It happened to me just a minute ago. I went upstairs to grab … something … and immediately forgot what it was when my smartphone entered my field of view. My attention was irresistably drawn to it — I had no choice.

I only remembered this to use it as an example because my shoulder started to ache. I originally intended to get aspirin to remove the pain. Consider: My goal was to remove pain from my body. The habitual cue of “see phone, check phone” overpowered it.

The moment the screen lights up, it is like my mind enters a daze. I do not use my phone. My phone uses me. Twitter, Google and Facebook are attention hogs by design. The companies employ teams of behavioural scientists to make sure that you spend as much time on their pages as possible. The only reason you don’t recognize this pattern in your own mind is because you haven’t learned it’s there yet.

Many readers will say that having my attention “irresistably drawn” towards my smartphone is my own problem. Again, I argue that you have this problem too, but you probably aren’t paying attention to when it happens.

Here is an uncomprehensive list of things I blame on exposure to video games, smart phones, television and the Internet:

  • Short attention spans
  • Suddenly forgetting why you looked at your phone (I can explain this too)
  • Inability to commit to things that pay off after a year or more of habitual investment


Perhaps the most interesting thing is what happens when I don’t have access to a smartphone or computer screen. It takes at least two days of almost-nil exposure, but motivation sharply increases. I get things done instead of vegetating on Reddit (which is another nightmare for your brain to handle). But most importantly, I feel better.

Does anyone else experience feeling down when they spend too much time around a computer or smartphone screen? My guess is that many people do, but haven’t clued in that the screen is the source of the problem. And the symptoms are likely different for everyone. It would most likely be symptoms like attention difficulties. But it could be worse ones too, like fatigue, loss of interest in seeing friends, and low self esteem. Imagine if feeling better about yourself was as easy as turning off Facebook.

The trouble is that most people will never find out if they experience a difference when they are removed from technology. It seems harmless, so why not bring along a smartphone to keep track of the time? And then you catch someone watching a full length movie in the back of the camper. Hey, I thought this was about nature!

Which brings me to my next point. For context I have to explain my view of attention, which you do not need to agree with me about to understand my point:

Many people incorrectly believe that their attention is directed by free will. That is false in every case. The squishy pink molecules inside your head regulate everywhere it goes, all the time.

I am going to choose Twitter for this next part because it feels like the worst offender to me. Other websites do this too, but not as bad. Now what happens to my attention when I visit Twitter?

Instantly, all of my plans are gone. The daze has me. If I was looking something up to show to my mom I would forget about it. Without looking directly inside my skull to find out what is going on, we can assume it is something my DNA didn’t plan for.

You probably have your own form of social media addiction. Games fulfill this condition too. The part you are missing is that you have rationalized it to yourself. You don’t notice that it has a hook into your physiology now. The worst part is that you cannot talk your way out of it. Behaviour does not work like that. A smoker can’t “talk” himself out of quitting on the spot, and a screen addict can’t either.

What is the solution to this?

In my head, there is a solution that suits everyone much better than “use your phone less”.

The solution is for companies to make their products less addictive intentionally. The functionality can remain the same. We can still post photos, status updates, and communicate instantly to all of our friends or followers. They can still harvest our information and sell it to advertisers. That’s cool. But if screens are snatching our brains, doesn’t that leave the companies open to litigation?

Suppose a person is staring at Twitter while they walk into a busy street. Can take Twitter to court by showing how the company took deliberate steps to rob us of our attention spans? And what if there was potential for a class action lawsuit? I could see a number of different groups having common cause. Students, for instance.

Just in the way that tobacco companies were pressured to change their marketing and content of their cigarettes, we could incentivize Google, Twitter and Facebook to reduce the attractiveness of spending time staring at their products. But it would be hard.

I wonder if someone could do it.



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