Digital distractions: what are they and how do they affect our lives?
In recent years, digital distractions have come to greatly affect our performance.
It has happened to all of us on more than one occasion that, even though we have something important to do, we get distracted by all kinds of electronic devices. Even if we are working, studying or simply having lunch with our family, we need to check our cell phone, even if it is only once.
We check it, we look at the latest notifications, who has sent us a "whats" and if our "crush" has posted something new on his Instagram profile. We raise our heads and notice that 10 minutes have passed and, to top it off, we don't remember what we were doing very well.
Digital distractions are becoming a harmful habit in our daily lives.The new technologies are reducing our productivity, taking away a lot of our time and depriving us of socializing face-to-face with people we have right next to us. Let's take a closer look at this worrying issue.
Digital distractions and their implications in daily life.
As the 21st century has progressed, information and communication technologies information and communication technologies (ICT) have taken over all aspects of our lives, a phenomenon that has become even more prevalent.This phenomenon has gone even further since the 2020 pandemic began and activities that most people used to do in person, such as working, studying or meeting up with friends, have had to become entirely virtual.
It is clear that new technologies, especially the Internet and social networks, make our lives easier in many ways, and the current situation is a clear example of this. If it were not for the online world, many people would not have been able to get in touch with many of their acquaintances, nor would they have been able to continue with their jobs or studies during their confinement. The Internet is a vast library of virtual informationwhich, when used well, has many benefits. However, in some ways it is also a source of harm in our society.
It has happened to some of us that, with cell phone in hand, we are walking down the street and bump into another passerby, who is also gossiping distractedly on his cell phone. It may also have happened to us that having met up with our friends, while having dinner with the family or at any other social event we have not been able to avoid gossiping the latest Instagram posts, completely ignoring our surroundings and if they have told us something we don't even remember it. We think we can multitask, that we can afford to use social media and live real life, but it's not that simple.
Digital distractions are a matter of concern, because they don't simply they don't simply involve disconnecting for a while from what we were doing.. Its power of deconcentration of what we were doing is so powerful that more than making us be in the clouds makes us reach stratospheric levels. We stop doing the important things we had to do and spend minutes, sometimes hours, gossiping about the latest publications, posts, notifications and messages that appear on our mobile screen.
Algorithms and addictions
In the past, distractions of any kind were due to a number of more or less controllable factors. Sometimes the distraction came only from our mind, in the form of a thought that worried us and was difficult to control, something that is totally normal in any person. Other times it happened that someone distracted us, saying or doing something to us that made us detach our attention from what we were doing.
When the first cell phones appeared, or rather the "troncomobiles", they caused distractions, but not at all comparable to those of today's technology and we could hardly call them "digital". We could receive a call or an "sms" and that, of course, would distract us a little while we were working or studying, but that was all there was to it. The sms were no more and the calls only distracted us for as long as they lasted.
But cell phones have become smart and, in addition, other similar devices have appeared that allow us to access the Internet anywhere.. Before, we could only access the Internet on a fixed computer and, given the primitive nature of the virtual world, there was little we could do beyond searching for information and playing a mini-game. Now, whether with a cell phone, tablet, desktop or laptop, we can access all kinds of content on all kinds of social networks, networks that know us very well.
Social networks work with algorithms that register what we have put in their search engine and what we have visited.. For example, if in Youtube we have searched for "kittens" and we have clicked on a video where these little animals appear, this platform will remember it. So, the next time we open Youtube it is quite likely that we will see cat videos in the recommended section and if we are big fans of these animals we will surely not resist the temptation to watch a few videos.
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr... all these networks work with similar algorithms and it's no secret. The reason for this is to get us to spend as much time as possible within these networks and they capture us by presenting us with all kinds of personalized content, content that the networks know we will like. We click and click on them, watching one video after another or seeing a long series of posts that we can't take our attention away from. When we are bombarded with information that we like we cannot stop paying attention to it, it is as if it were a drug and we are addicted to the Internet.
Attention and distractions
As surprising as it may seem digital distractions have neurological consequences.. We invest a lot of energy a day looking at all kinds of texts, alerts, images, videos and notifications and, to make matters worse, we tend to look at them at times that do not touch. The physical, mental and emotional costs of such distractions are directly related to our efficiency and productivity in our day-to-day duties, which will be performed worse the more digital distractions there are.
Although the adult human brain accounts for only 2% of the body mass, its more than 80 trillion neurons burn about 20% of the calories we ingest each day. The percentage rises to 50% in the case of adolescents, and is 60% in children and pre-adolescents. In other words, the energy consumption of our brain is very high, an expense that increases depending on the activities we do, especially if they are cognitively demanding.
The most cognitively demanding activities are those that have to do with attention.. Shifting our attention from one subject to another, focusing it and keeping it that way for an undetermined period of time involves a high consumption of energy, something we do every day, in a normal and daily basis. In fact, of these three activities, the one that expends the most energy is that of shifting attention, since disconnecting from the previous task and concentrating on the new one requires a great deal of cognitive effort.
Digital devices cause us to repeat this cycle countless times. For example, let's imagine that we are working on the computer and we have our cell phone on our desk. We consult our cell phone just to see what is being said in the group chat, read the last ten notifications and reply with a brief comment. This simple action has caused us to disconnect, having to put some effort back into the task we were doing and focus our attention again.
This particular case of digital distraction would not be a big problem if we only committed it once while we were working; however, it is common for us to do the same thing several times, probably more than 5 times. Constantly shifting the focus of attention between the cell phone and work means that we are constantly investing energy resources, causing mental fatigue since our energy is not unlimited.This causes mental fatigue because our energy is not unlimited. As we become mentally tired we perform worse, make more mistakes and become frustrated because we are not doing the task well.
Some will say they can do two things at once because they are good at multitasking. They think they can efficiently do two things at the same time, being able to work and check social networks simultaneously. Unfortunately for them, multitasking is a myth. The human brain can only concentrate on one complex thing and constantly switching from one thing to another does not allow us to pay proper attention to both things. to both issues. It is not that we go from being 100% on one task to 50% on each of the two, but rather we would be at 10%. We work much worse.
What to do in the face of all this?
It is curious how the very social networks that encourage us to be distracted by them have enabled options to reduce the time we use them. Make no mistake, they do not do it out of regret, but rather because of complaints from psychologists, consumer associations and various governments. Moreover, in most cases their functions to regulate time are rather passive, simply warning us that we have been using the application for X amount of time, without preventing us from continuing to use it.without preventing us from continuing to use it.
Another option is to download applications that do block access to social networks and other time-consuming applications. The problem is that the ones that seem to work cost money, since if social networks encourage Internet addiction, the applications that stop them are profiting financially from such addictions.
The best thing to do to avoid digital distractions is relatively simple, in fact we all know the answer: disconnect. Whatever the device that distracts us if we really want to avoid digital distractions the best we can do is to turn off the mobile when we are working or studying, or at least disconnect the wi-fi button and inform our contacts that if they want to talk to us to call us, and preferably only if it is an emergency.
In case the distraction comes from the computer and we have to use it for work, the matter is a little more complicated, but not impossible.. If our work involves writing, a good option is to use the word processor (e.g. Word) instead of using an online word processor in the cloud (e.g. Drive). If you can't do without the online word processor, it's best not to have any other windows open while you're using it.
Maybe we like to listen to music in the background while we work, which is good because it motivates us to keep working. It is common for us to use Youtube and put an automatic playlist while we use the computer for other things. The problem with this is that we have to be very careful because we run the risk that, when we look for the song we want to listen to, we get distracted by watching recommended videos.
Considering the above, the best way to listen to music in the background is to use traditional music devices, such as a radio cassette player or mini-system. You can also use your own computer for this, but it is best to download the playlist and listen to it without having to go to Youtube. This way we will avoid the temptation to gossip any new video or other digital content that it is not time to consult now that we are busy working.
Finally, we must insist that multitasking is nothing more than a myth. If we have to work or study, we must focus solely on it.. We must provide adequate space to avoid being distracted by all kinds of new technologies. A very good idea is to leave the cell phone in a hidden place, since the simple fact of having it nearby, even if it is not going to be consulted, makes us start to pay attention to it without wanting to, which distracts us from what we were doing. The ideal is to have at hand only what is related to the task to do, and the more analogical, the better.
- Eagleman, D. (2020) Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Pantheon Books, Nueva York, Estados Unidos.
- Robb, M. B. (2019). The new normal: Parents, teens, screens, and sleep in the United States. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)