An Antidote to Digital Distraction

Linda Stone, a researcher and consultant, coined the term “continual partial attention,” to describe the effect of the media on our ability to focus. The incessant interruptions from email, text, phone and social media impact our attention.

The Atlantic magazine ran an interesting interview with Ms Stone on maintaining focus in a defocused world. She makes the point that continual partial attention is neither good nor bad; rather, it is useful in certain circumstances. “The important thing for us as humans is to have the capacity to tap the attention strategy that will best serve us in any given moment,” Stone said in the Atlantic. It becomes problematic when a person develops no other strategies.

Ms Stone puts forward an alternative that she calls relaxed presence, the kind of mental state that ensues when children engage in self-directed play. This refers to the recreation that is expressly for fun and exploration, play that serves no agenda. She notes that it is valuable because its inherent byproducts are resilience and deep focus.

Schools tend to be highly structured environments–and are necessarily so, given the ever growing list of mandates society throws at them. These days, in addition to literacy and numeracy, schools have to cover social skills, citizenship, morality, manners, hygeine, personal safety, digital safety, and on and on it goes. However, with so much going on in such regimented environments, self-directed play is excluded, and this is to the children's detriment. Their lives are often so full of activities that little time is left for free play. In another article, Dr Stone said that zoning out online can be a survival strategy to mitigate the stresses of our hectic world.

Mimicry of Parental Fascination

Many pundits have fretted over babies who can operate touch screens before they can walk. Ms Stone points out that very young children mimic their parents. What fascinates mum and dad, fascinates bub. If mum's attention is dominated by her iPhone, the child's attention will follow.

She refers to studies that highlight the importance of eye contact in the development of empathy. Parents whose attention is continually directed to their iPad risk interfering with their kids' empathic ability.

Despite all of this, the researcher believes the future is bright. She points out that as young people mature into adults, they make choices about the things they will copy or abandon for their kids' sake.

The Danger of the Disconnection Message

So many people are touting the importance of disconnecting [from media] as a strategy for getting a grip on technology. Dr Stone doesn't think this is a useful argument because far from helping us focus, it breeds shame and stress. In the Atlantic interview she explained, “The language is all about going away from something that we feel we don't adequately control. It's like a dieter constantly saying to him or herself, 'I can't eat the cookie. I can't eat the cookie,' instead of saying, 'That apple looks delicious.'”

Key Take Aways

Many parents are vexed by their children's enmeshment with technology. While there are legitimate concerns, Stone's expert appraisal is positive.

  • Constant partial attention is a legitimate attention strategy in certain situations. Developing other strategies is equally important.
  • Relaxed presence is an especially useful one because it is conducive to learning and curiosity. Encouraging self-directed play is critical because in the state of relaxed presence, kids learn to focus deeply.
  • Parents must be sure to model balance. Remember that eye contact is crucial for your kids to develop empathy.


Want to know more?

Linda Stone's website can be found here.

Here's a good article on why the internet sucks you in.