“Attention Pollution”

I’ve always been sensitive about cell phones. Basic instincts have always told me constantly needing to check on something that wasn’t in this moment couldn’t be good for my health (or happiness).

My family is of a similar mindset. There’s an unspoken credo that we would not pull a phone out mid-conversation or check it at the dinner table without explanation.

But the majority of my friends and most definitely my partner are in line with the rest of our world – keeping their phones on the dinner table, “discreetly” checking in during movies, rolling over in bed to see if anything happened during their last REM cycle.

I’ve asked myself why this infuriates me so much. Why do I care about how often my friends check their phones at brunch? Why has my boyfriend peeping SnapChat while we’re watching Netflix terrorized me?

I just read Mark Manson’s latest post, “Smartphones Are the New Cigarettes,” and he successfully clarified the why for me. (Thank you, Mark!) He calls this frustrating byproduct of other people’s cell phone addictions “attention pollution.”

It’s attention pollution when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them.

The truth is I feel like I’m in a constant battle to control my attention. I meditate regularly, I like to write in a journal and read every day, with the goal of really getting inside the information, the stories, or the headspace of whatever it is I’m doing or learning. I don’t like when I’m catching up with a friend and I feel my eyes glaze over. I want to BE HERE NOW. I work at it. And attention pollution is working against me every step of the way.

Back to Mark:

Their inability to focus interferes with our (already-fragile) ability to focus. The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses. It forces us to pause our conversations and redouble our thoughts unnecessarily. It causes us to lose our train of thought and forget that important point we were constructing in our head. It erodes at our ability to connect and simply be present with one another, destroying intimacy in the process.

I don’t want to control my partner or my friends (really!), it’s that their needing to know what happened on their screen really does affect me. It disconnects me from them, and makes my brain grapple with what we were working on before that needing-to-check-in happened. It feels so wasteful and exhausting. And I know I’m being slowly phased out as a normal person for saying this or reacting that way which is making this a lonely team to be on.  Maybe quarterly silent retreats? Maybe getting my boyfriend to understand why it bothers me so much? Maybe more Mark Manson articles will affect the trend and people will realize that our attention is precious and we should resist giving it away so compulsively? For now I’m just glad to hear someone else complain about it.

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