As I graduated college and began an 8-to-5 working life, I looked into my past experience for cues on how to spend my free time. Since my weekly schedule in college was so unreliable, I needed to stretch back to my high school practices to pinpoint my last relatable consistent weekly schedule. Life now is considerably different than it was in high school, but the practice of weekday obligations followed by open weekends was the same, and I began reflecting on how I spent my weeknights and weekends as a 14- to 18-year-old to help frame the way I would spend my time as a twenty-something.
The biggest, most apparent difference was the current habit of watching streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. We simply didn’t have them when I was a teenager, and even having cable wasn’t the same. With cable, if a show was on I was interested in, I would tune in and then stop when it was over. With Netflix, I can watch and watch and watch without pause, for as long as I please.
Next, was my interaction with technology. As a teenager, I was definitely texting more than I am now (mostly because I was constantly texting the boys I liked!), but I’ve noticed in the last year after college graduation a sharp uptick in my interaction with all social media sites—but in a passive way, not an active. I scroll and scroll and scroll and close the window and open it again and scroll and scroll and scroll.
Lastly, my reading (and writing) life. In 2010 it was my goal to read between 50 and 75 books a year, or around 1-1.5 books a week. And I did it. I ate up books in high school, reading well into the night with my bedside lamp on and falling asleep with the book in my hands. (I remember many a night where Annie would come home late, gently pull the book from my hands, and flick the light off, without a stir from me!)
What I am noticing now about my after-work practices is becoming increasingly of concern to me. Books no longer capture my attention. I am impatient to finish, and grow uninterested incredibly quickly. On the other hand, I’ve seen a steady rise in the number of episodes on Netflix I’ll watch in a row, the length of time I’ll spend surfing social media.
I fear my ability to remain focused without stimulation is atrophying. In fact, it’s so bad that I can’t even watch television—which is specifically designed now to hold my decreasing attention span—without also scrolling through my phone or working on my computer. I am stimulated and over-stimulated all day, every day. On the nights that I try to read before bed, I fall asleep almost immediately. Why? Because my mind has lost the ability to focus on something stationary for an extended period of time. But if my laptop comes to bed with me, I’ll stay awake watching episode after episode until it’s well into the early morning.
I feel the freneticism in my life, the need to constantly be doing something. An inconsistency I see from the culture I was raised in is the shift from “making the most of your time” to outright addiction to motion. As adolescents we were told again and again, “If you’re standing in line at the grocery store, study your vocabulary words! If you have a spare moment before school starts, pull out your memory verse!” And now, those same people say of us, “Look at them—they can’t even stand in line at the grocery store without checking their cell phones.” I was raised to never waste a moment, but I wasn’t necessarily taught the difference between using moments well and using them poorly, and I certainly wasn’t taught how to rest.
So here I am—a twenty-something in the age of technology, constantly on the move and losing the ability to hold my attention, a book lover who is losing the ability to read. What is to be done?
A few things, which Kyle and I are already trying out: keeping cellphones out of reach; not allowing laptops to come to bed with us; watching movies and doing absolutely nothing else; intentionally reading for longer chunks of time without a break. We’ve found it to be hard work. It’s no wonder our generation reads less and less every year. If I’m having trouble, and I love to read, what hope is there for those who don’t have the same level of interest? And if they aren’t filling their time with slow, measured activities like reading, are they consumed by the constant motion of television and the internet?
I believe time will continue to reveal the negative effects our currently technological advances are having on our well-being. I know they are already are. Now all that remains is to see where technology is bad for us, and have the mental strength to stop.