Are Digital Distractions The Worlds Latest Pandemic? by Randy Ross

Computers and digital gadgets have made our lives easier, more practical and efficient. But, over a relatively short period of time, our relationship with technology has moved from expanding our lives in mostly a positive manner to making some of us desperate to disconnect and unplug when trying to get things done.

Previously, we have mentioned how George R. R. Martin, among other successful writers and creators, writes on an 80’s computer disconnected from the Internet to avoid digital distractions. Perhaps that’s a strategy more of us should adopt?

The information revolution came without an instruction manual explaining the importance of remembering to be present in the offline, analogue world.

In the New York Times, Pico Iyer described the importance of logging off and the problem with constantly being connected — and even addicted — to the digital sphere, as research shows that slowing down and spending time in rural settings leads to improved cognition, greater attentiveness and stronger memory. Additionally, both deep thought and empathy rely on the inherently slow neural processes our modern, high-speed lives have little time for.

“All of a man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone” — French philosopher Blaise Pascal
Digital damage

Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, described how allowing digital distraction is like playing tennis with our cognitive energies and attentional resources. However, our brains take a lot longer to switch direction than a tennis ball.

In her study, Mark found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption. Several other studies confirm that distractions completely derail your mental progress for up to half an hour after even the smallest distraction, self-inflicted or not.

In other words; you can add almost 25 minutes of lost time to your swift 30-second-scroll through Instagram.

Distractions don’t just steal time and hurt productivity. They have negative emotional effects in how they lead to higher stress and a bad mood, Mark found. Switching context and focus every five minutes also impairs deep thinking, work flow and creativity.

While many claims to be able to multitask and control distractions, Mozart is a rare, historically known exception able to work on several compositions at a time, management consultant Peter Drucker writes in his definite guide to getting the right things done. Bach, Handel or Verdi, on the other hand, was like most of us; unable to focus on more than one work at a time.

Now, think through how often you are interrupted at work. Or how often you feel the intense urge to check social media. According to this infographic, the average American employee is interrupted 56 times a day, only spends three minutes working before switching tasks and uses a staggering two hours recovering from distractions every day.

Students are not much better. A recent study of students in 26 US states by Associate Professor Barney McCoy, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. shows the level of distraction has worsened the last couple of years.

During the typical four years students spend in college classrooms, calculations based on the study shows that students may be distracted on average for “two-thirds of a school year.

People don’t waste time only on unimportant, thoughtless scrolling. The statistics also show that it takes an average of 16 minutes to refocus after handling incoming email — and that an equivalent to 10 IQ points are lost when fielding constant email. That’s the same loss of brainpower as when losing an entire night’s sleep.


A constant fear of missing out

In a study on the use of smart phones, Tor Wallin Andreassen, Professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, found that a widespread notification epidemic and fear of missing out (FOMO) leads to extreme use of phones and social media.

The average person checks her phone 150 times a day, Andreassen found, and explained the addiction with the fact that dopamine and serotonin are released from the brain’s wellness center when stimulated by for example checking social media. The sensation of wellbeing leads to the brain wanting more — and hence; you reaching for your phone over and over again.

The study does not only confirm that this kind of addiction affects social relations and interpersonal quality, it is further proof of how mobile phones and digital distractions ruin our ability to concentrate properly. Multitasking and interruptions lead to a hyperstimulation of the brain, and Andreassen suspects it will impair our memory in the long run.

But, as analogue life has become so passé it’s getting popular again, there are clear signs of countermovements in both the offline- and online sphere. Not only is there now a market for actual cell-phone cages priced at $60 and rather disturbing military-style boot camps for web-obsessed teenagers in the most wired nation on earth; South Korea, there is a flourishing amount of websites and apps blocking digital distractions and your irresistible urge to waste valuable time on social media.

These young people are not battling alcohol or drugs. Rather, they have severe cases of what many in this country [South Korea] believe is a new and potentially deadly addiction: cyberspace — Martin Fackler, the New York Times

Not only has universal internet use become a national issue in South Korea, compulsive Internet use has even been identified as a mental health issue in several countries, including the United States. Psychiatrist Dr. Jerald J. Block estimates that close to nine million Americans may be at risk for the disorder he calls pathological computer use.

While this might be a bit extreme, it’s a wake-up call to at least set your phone to silent and appreciate the possibilities a pen and a blank sheet of paper offers.

Now, while 80% of interruptions at work are considered trivial and 60% or less of time spent at work is spent productively, you’ve hopefully gained some valuable insight by reading this.

For us, the team developing reMarkable the paper tablet, these facts are relevant. What we want to do is not to develop another digital device that ruins thinking, but actually enhances it.

While computers and smartphones are fantastic at providing people with the latest updates from social media or news, they are equally terrible of helping people to focus. With reMarkable we are making a digital device that helps people to think better.

Yes, we know it might be overdramatic to call digital distractions a pandemic disease, but now that you know of some of the consequences, and when looking at the definition as it appears in the Dictionary of Epidemiology, one may start to wonder if it is exactly that:

an epidemic [disease] is occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people