Is your attention span shorter than it used to be? Science has proved that technology is rewiring our brains and making it more difficult for us to focus and think deeply. Studies show that in the United States, teenagers focus on one task for an average of only 65 seconds. Office workers focus for an average of only three minutes. Such are the effects of the rise of texting and TikTok.
Inability to focus creates many problems: You can’t accomplish quality work. You can’t give your problems the attention necessary to solve them. You can’t have depth in your studies, including Bible study. You won’t have deep relationships, including in prayer to God.
Your world is constantly undermining quality thought.
You must fight back!
Stolen Focus author Johann Hari devotes an entire book to studying 12 of the main attacks against your attention span, and there are others. I’d like to focus in on one. He calls it “The collapse of sustained reading.”
He writes that in 2017, the average American spent 324 minutes per day on his or her phone—that’s 51/2 hours—and only 17 minutes reading something in print.
“Reading books trains us to read in a particular way—in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period,” he writes. “Reading from screens … trains us to read in a different way—in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another. [W]e run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need.” Do this enough, and it affects how you read printed material as well. “[Reading] stops being a form of pleasurable immersion in another world and becomes more like dashing around a busy supermarket to grab what you need and then get out again,” he writes.
People understand and remember less of what they absorb on screens. Many studies reveal what is called “screen inferiority.” “This gap in understanding between books and screens is big enough that in elementary school children, it’s the equivalent of two thirds of a year’s growth in reading comprehension,” Hari writes.
This book has an interesting section about the message in different forms of media—the inherent significance in the means by which information is conveyed. Consider the messages on social media. Twitter’s implied message is that you shouldn’t focus on anything for long; you can understand the world through simple 280-character statements—in fact, you can confidently interpret major events at a glance. Oh, and what matters most is whether people immediately agree with and applaud these communication bursts. Facebook implies that your life exists to be displayed to other people; you should show edited, carefully selected highlights of your life; and it’s important whether they immediately like these highlights; in fact, friendship is defined as someone regularly looking at your edited highlights and you looking at theirs.
These are preposterously false messages—the truth is nearly the opposite—yet millions of us have come to believe them. As a result, people are becoming less and less capable of thinking properly and more and more divorced from truth.
As Hari notes, though, the message inherent in books is that life is more complex than a short electronic post. If you want to understand it, you have to set aside time to study and think deeply about it. There is value in shutting out other concerns and narrowing your attention to one thing. It is worth thinking deeply about how other people live and how their minds work.
Of course, the content of any given book isn’t all necessarily true, but the message inherent in the act of reading books is true. This is why, as many studies show, there are significant mental benefits to reading books. Doing so tends to expand your knowledge, sharpen your mind, improve your wit, increase your appreciation for solitude and deeper thought, help you understand yourself, strengthen your judgment, improve your understanding of other people, increase your empathy, and help strengthen your character.
Social media, by contrast, feeds the nastier, shallower parts of our human nature. And its rise and ubiquity are extracting a dear price in all society today.
There is a war going on out there against your mind, and the noise of social media and other incessant, demanding stimuli is a major weapon that is being used against you.
The Creator of your mind says, “Come now, and let us reason together …” (Isaiah 1:18). He thinks deeply, He carefully created your amazing ability to think, and He wants you to be able to connect with Him and have your thinking guided by Him.
We can all do better at focusing on important things for longer. And we all need to. Times are getting more and more serious. We need to keep abreast of the news, yes, but we also need to tear ourselves away from addiction to social media and the Internet, and replace that information consumption with deeper thinking such as reading high-quality books. Do this, and you will improve as a thinker. In addition, your mind will have the rest and focus it needs as you learn to actively think about what you are reading rather than just opening yourself to stimulation.
Purge the social media habit. Read a high-quality book. Use this as a tool to reclaim your own command of your own mental focus. You’re going to need it.