Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Smartphone Attention Disorder or SAD

A new field of research is the impact smartphones have on our social lives. One of the primary impacts is on our ability to pay attention because it consumes too much of ours. Namely, whenever people get bored while listening to someone in a seminar, for example, picking up their smartphone is becoming the most common gesture.

Smartphone attention disorder

As much as I would like to think otherwise, this is an attention disorder and, in my opinion, is becoming more severe than anyone thought. When I read some article warning about people being together, but isolated, each with their smartphone, there‘s a picture of friends at the same table, each looking at their smartphone screen. Unfortunately, I see this scene more often than I would like. And I experience it at home sometimes and wonder what is happening. Instead of a personalizing device, a smartphone is a self-centered one, generating relational deficits, and when you don’t control yourself, you may develop what I’ll call a smartphone attention disorder or SAD.

An interesting article entitled ”The Eight-Second Attention Span” in The New York Times by Tim Egan remarks how our attention span, i.e., in his words “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted” is down to 8 seconds. This is incredibly low.

He exemplifies this saying a ”New York friend used to send me clever, well-thought-out emails, gems of sprightly prose. Then he switched to texting, which abbreviated his wit and style. Now all verbs and nouns have vanished; he sends emojis, the worst thing to happen to communication in our time.”

Take WhatsApp, for example. If you’re included in a group and try to share something profound, you probably get more emojis than replies or even a mutual sharing by your friends. Human attention is being rewired in our brains, which have enough plasticity to raise our concerns. In this sense, the loss of attention span becomes a physical problem, besides cultural.

There’s an urgent need to regain control over your attention span and start dealing with a growing SAD. Without realizing the seriousness of these issues for many years, my iPhone has the silence switch ON all the time. And when it vibrates in my pocket, and I’m speaking with someone, I disregard it on purpose. It’s an exercise I do for some time now.

Also, on essential moments for you like seminars, religious celebrations, meaningful conversations, a relaxing walk in nature, you can put your phone on “Do not disturb” mode or even “Flight Mode.”

It is pressing to overcome the syndrome that you must be connected all the time because some important call may arrive. Although this is a possibility, most time it doesn’t happen, and you’re needlessly increasing your smartphone attention disorder.

Start observing your surroundings.

Meditate on a topic you must deal with soon.

Take a small agenda with you and a pencil to draw or write your thoughts.

The “revenge of analog” – paraphrasing David Sax’s book title – is not about returning to a non-digital world, but finding the right balance and regain control over your attention. This human trait is one of the most precious and one you should cherish more to rewire your brain the right way.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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