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If You Were a Teenager, Would You Focus On Something Else? by Michele Minno

Allow me to introduce a new guest writer to The Low Tech Trek, Michele Minno!

Michele Minno is an AI software engineer with experience in semantic web, open data, big data, social media, and influence marketing. He realized more and more throughout the years, within the companies he was working for, that most technology applications were going in the wrong direction, creating addictive software and environments that make the user’s life worse. He is currently teaching a high school course called Digital Citizenship and is always open to work, create and contribute to a more humane technology.


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We’ve always been told that information is a good thing, that a lack of information may lead to wasted time or missed opportunities.  It’s a rational point, but it’s not the whole story.


Humans don’t behave like computers, which can perform many tasks at the same time, and even change priorities on demand. In a computer, processes are separate individuals that share common resources (memory, cpu, input/output devices) and can work independently from one another. While one process can render complex graphical structures, another one can get an incoming email and ask itself: ‘Is this useful? Is it spam, ads, harmful? Do I discard it?’, without bothering the other processes. Humans, however, can’t work in such a multitasking mode, even if sometimes we think we can.


Each person has only one, single brain wired to one body, together forming one, living being, acting under one big eternal rationale; ‘do the best for yourself’. This implies that there is only one main mental thread at a time, implementing this vital rule. Guided by this rule, we care about any stimulus from the environment that can be important for us; the more we view a stimulus as important, the more we feel an emotional attachment to it.


If we are working at home on our laptop and a fire comes out of the kitchen, the stimulus of the flame generates an intense sudden fear that wipes out any other feeling or state of mind we had before. This is healthy because it pushes us to act. The same happens with extremely good stimuli, like when we see the finish line after a long run.   This, for example, makes us overcome the exhaustion of our body. This is how our brain works, prioritizing things that matter most by coupling them with very intense emotional states. This mechanism has generally done very well for us, leading us along our evolutionary line and ensuring our survival, but lately it has become a sort of short circuit, primarily through our smartphones’ constant presence.


Stimuli coming from our smartphones are both strong and relevant.  We almost always have our devices near us, within reach of our ears and eyes, so stimuli generated from it are strong in our sensory field.   We have in our pocket something that is flooded with information, yet we don’t have any filter to separate useless or harmful notifications from the ones that really matter. We live in constant waiting for an emotionally disruptive ding, checking our phones an instant later to find just more noise, the latest useless bit of information that piles up in our attention resources.

Imagine yourself as a fifteen-year old teenager, with all the internal upheaval this age brings with it. Your senses and feelings are boosted by something new, but you still hold on to a child’s needs, like playing and having fun.  These cravings for something new combined with the need to play entraps you into your smartphone all the time. Even when doing something else, your brain is waiting for relevant stimuli from your smartphone. This becomes a silent, internal clash that cuts your cognitive resources available for the current task.


Social media, communications and videogames demand your active presence and attention all the time. They won’t wait for you.  You feel like you are constantly missing important updates from your friends, opportunities, and breaking news.


This is what I see as a Digital Citizenship teacher in high school. Teenagers are constantly trying to cope with this situation, and the strain comes at a cost. They are consciously facing this problem of excessive technology-enabled intrusion of information. Most of them feel this is a concrete problem in their everyday life. Each one is trying to fix it in a different way, with varying results. One may set alarms to remind themselves to stop watching Youtube videos after a certain amount of time.  Another student puts her smartphone in a box on top of a closet to not be exposed to any notifications for a while.  Others simply turn it off when they go home after school to switch off their anxiety and focus on homework. They all agree that the only method that works is to do something that makes you forget about this infinite source of uniformly urgent information.


What can I do for them in my class? The first thing is to let them talk about it.   Let them confront each other.  They must know that their struggle is real and shared and brings serious consequences for their daily activities that require sustained concentration.  They should understand what is lost in terms of happiness, spontaneity, and empathy when people only interact and share feelings through written words, photos and videos rather than face-to-face interactions.


The second thing is to find some activity in the classroom to train their attention and focus capabilities.  I gave my students this article.  The students had a short time to extract its main points and report them back to me. I proposed it to them as an exercise to filter information when they are flooded with so much information. Considering that English is not their mother tongue, the university level of the article, and its scientific approach, I certainly pushed the boundaries of their attention. Like the repetition maximum load during a gym workout, this kind of exercise could help to better understand student attention levels and give them a glimpse of what their resources can achieve if fully exploited.


I have tried to give students advice on this topic, encouraging them foremost to put away their smartphones if they want to concentrate. As the test results in the article highlight, students perform better when their phone is out of sight and hearing range. If something affects you in a way you can’t control, you can at least put it away to temporarily free yourself from its influence.

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