Are We One Click Away From Disconnecting From the People Around Us?

Is the web diminishing our ability to pay attention to the goings on in the real world, or whether we're neurologically modifying ourselves to only be capable of focusing on ever-briefer bites of information.
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If you have an ADD-ish brain like mine, the world wide web is a little slice of heaven; it's like being a sugar-addict set loose in a candy store. There are infinite topics to explore, videos to watch and headlines to scan, each leading to thousands of others that may pique your interest. You start out with a goal, and a clear intention to pursue it -- aiming, let's say, for information on which kind of terrier is best with children -- and the next thing you know, you're engrossed in an online chat about Napolean Bonaparte.

How did it happen? The kid-friendly dog article had a link to information on puppy mills (which you felt it important to learn about) which linked to a famous puppy farm in Florida whose page had a link for a video about Port Everglades (isn't that where your cousin moved last year?), which mentioned a cruise line that sails to Martinique (you've always wanted to go there), which linked to an online chat about the French Revolutionary war and ... need I say more?

This is how the ADD-ish mind works. We head to the laundry room before lunch to start the wash, only to find a permission slip in our son's pocket that he forgot to hand over. Taking it inside to sign it (lest we get distracted and forget!) we search for a pen, and wind up in the office where we see the sweater we were looking for last night. We return the sweater to our closet and boy it's a mess, so we decide to tidy up a bit. Once that's done, we're famished so we go to the kitchen to make a sandwich, only to notice a sink full of dishes. But then, the phone rings, and ... so it goes.

The hunger of the ADD-ish mind for stimulation makes the web an idyllic world for us to play in. We chase down links with juicy headlines, even if they take us further away from our intended destination, following the tantalizing tangents like a moth to the flame.

My concern is this: I believe the intensely alluring pull of the web (and its cousins -- texting, emailing and the like) may be creating shorter attention spans for all of us -- not just those with minds like mine that are especially captivated by whatever is bright and shiny.

It seems to me that even if you have been gifted with a reasonably hardy attention span, the Internet could very well transform all of us into people less patient with the mundane aspects of real life.

I once took a class on ADHD, and the instructor was talking about the tendency of those with the diagnosis to engage in several things at once because of the higher level of stimulation: unloading the dishwasher while talking on the phone and feeding the baby. I proudly raised my hand and said, "I can do lots of things at once!" "Yes," said the instructor, "But can you do just one?" I fell silent; in truth, it was hard for me to simply unload the dishwasher or talk on the phone without having something going on the side to spice up the experience.

Therein lies the rub. To completely engage with something, we need to be fully present. The web invites us to split our attention into half, then quarters and ever smaller fractions as we skip between multiple windows and online activities. We review our company's receivables while simultaneously interacting in a Skype chat, reading up on Lindsay Lohan's latest arrest and catching the newest baby-giggling video. Our adrenalin is pumping nicely, and we're engaged and alert.

But what happens when our elderly neighbor stops to tell us about his recent visit with his daughter's family in Shreveport? Are we capable of shifting gears and being genuinely present as he describes the birthday party they had for his granddaughter, or while he shares the details of his son-in-law's knee replacement surgery? Or do our eyes glaze over as we impatiently pretend to listen, searching for an excuse to take our leave? Are we becoming incapable of tolerating the slower pace of ordinary life?

I'm not suggesting that the web has caused people to experience boredom in situations they would once have found fascinating. You might never have wanted to hear about that fellow's knees. But I am questioning whether the web is diminishing our ability to pay attention to the goings on in the real world, or whether we're neurologically modifying ourselves to only be capable of focusing on ever-briefer bites of information.

The best litmus test is our children, who seem to be experiencing ever decreasing amounts of mom and dad's relaxed, unhurried attention. Our kids are learning to take a back seat to the chime of a new text message, ring of the cell phone, or email beep. "Just a minute, honey! I have to respond to this email -- it's really important!" In a recent New York Times article by Julie Scelfo shared the story of a young boy who finally tried to bite his mother's leg when she repeatedly refused to look up from her Blackberry.

Kids must have their parents' undivided attention for leisurely periods of time to feel that they matter. While bursts of quality time is great, kids need more than filler and fluff. They need to know that we are truly interested in them, fully present as we lean into who they are and what they care about.

The web will never go away; nor would I want it to. I love being able to learn things in moments that might have required a trip to the library, and it's an extraordinary platform for sharing insights, revelations and friendships that is making the world smaller and in many ways, friendlier.

But we need to be careful. Without reining in the 24/7 magnetic pull of the endless options for stimulation, we may find ourselves incapable of the sort of genuine connection -- face to face, eye to eye -- that, while less flashy, nourishes us at the the most basic, human level.

Perhaps, like me, you'll start pausing before following one more link. You may even decide to switch off the computer altogether, even if you were only going to do a "quick" Facebook check. After all, if you're a parent, there are some real live faces over there, getting ready to switch on their computers, who might jump at the chance to play a game of checkers with you, instead. And otherwise, you might want to step out and pay your neighbor a visit. I hear he has some fascinating tales to tell about his time in Korea, if you have some time to listen ...

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