Monday, September 5, 2011

span-tastic: why I write longer blog entries

The prevalence of attention deficit disorder has rapidly increased over the past two decades. Estimates for the number of school-age kids suffering from the disorder range from 3% up to 24%. The American Deficit Disorder Association reports that one-half to two-thirds of all children who are afflicted with ADD or ADHD will continue to struggle with attention issues as adults.

Behaviors typical of the disorder are hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility. Though there are biological and hereditary factors that appear to cause the disorder, I have to wonder if society doesn't feed into the problem of short attention spans. At the very least, we tolerate it.

I don't need to point to things like the common habit of changing television channels or the ever-upgrading technology or the need to replace perfectly good items with the 'new'. Having worked as a teacher, I have witnessed the lack of lengthy attention spans in most kids. First of all, kids are obsessed with checking their phones. I wish there were a better word than obsessed because the need is stronger. Perhaps possessed, as in they almost have no control over this need. And the need consumes them. They absolutely have to know who just texted them, who wrote what on Facebook, or where their friends are planning to meet up after school... even if it is only 8:15 in the morning. Despite our best efforts as teachers to prevent cell phone usage in class, it happens. Depending on the particular room you teach in and the organization of desks, etc., it can be quite difficult to monitor all of the kids all of the time. Impossible, in fact. Even if you require the students to leave their bags in a corner of the room, taking with them only what is necessary for your class, phones can still be hidden in pant pockets or under over-sized sweatshirts. This all falls under the category of distractibility. And I believe that we, as teachers, feed into this problem. Schools of education teach future teachers the necessity of "chunking" up their lesson plans into 4 or 5 shorter lesson plans, each only spanning 10-15 minutes. While this certainly works better for maintaining the attention of all students, it seems to just reinforce shorter attention spans. When I was in high school, I remember having to sit through entire English classes where the parallels between Telemachus and Odysseus were discussed and analyzed, where discussion was only interspersed with returning to the epic to read aloud, where absolutely nothing was ever written on the board (and so we were forced to pay attention so we could take notes.) I am not saying that this is the answer, but I do think it helped me to develop a longer attention span.

Impulsivity. This is something darker and more frightening about the way our society turns a sort of blind eye to this problem in teens. It has become fairly well-known that teens do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex and thus are possess weaker impulse control. Simultaneously, their logical reasoning and other intellectual abilities attain mature adult levels much earlier. They may feel adult, but they can't act like it. The reason I said that their impulsiveness scares me a bit is because of the increase in risky behaviors in which kids are participating. Perhaps this is because parents aren't around as much; perhaps because our entire society has become much more informal. Who knows? What I do know is the urgency to be present and visible online -- in not very healthy ways -- is another obsession for teens. For her blog article, "10 things you don't know about teens and social networking," Sarah Weir interviewed the cast of Facebook Me, a play to be performed at the New York International Fringe Festival. Katie, a 15-year old commented:
"I've become very good at taking pictures of myself. I know what angle is best, I know how to part my lips... you know. It's like the number one thing on my mind is 'I need to get home right now and take a new profile picture.' All because I want someone to comment on how I look."
This need leads to impulsive behavior in order to catch the best profile picture... clearly, as Katie implies, the most provocative one. If you need to always one-up your friends, you may be inclined to act less rationally and more impulsively.

Another problem I notice with attention span in our society is the need to be 'ever-present.' Or maybe a better way to phrase what I mean is 'ever-available.' Another teen that Ms. Weil interviewed explains:
"My friendships are really affected by social networking.  You have to constantly validate your friends online. And everyone's like 'Where were you?' 'What have you been doing?' 'Why haven't you commented on my picture yet?' So you have to be online all the time, just to keep track, so you don't upset anyone." - Jasmine, 13
This is not just a problem for teenagers, though. Adults, too, expect other adults to text right back or return phone calls immediately. And if it doesn't happen right away, a sort of resentment begins to build. Being busy is no excuse anymore. A cell phone is always with you. Why couldn't you answer? Certainly, I am not the first to wonder how healthy all of this is. Whereas purchases and keeping up with the Joneses used to dominate our need for instant gratification, communication and relationships have now also fallen prey.

Despite all of this, I believe otherwise of people. What I mean is that, I believe that people are inherently thoughtful, reflective, and curious, and that they really do want to engage with ideas in a thorough manner. Take the play, Copenhagen, for instance. While there is an old adage in the theater world that "audiences don't do to the theater to think," this is indeed a thinking-man's play in which physicist Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Neils Bohr discuss the uncertainy principle and other complicated topics in nuclear physics. Yet, this play was an incredible success, toppling the notion that people want to turn off their brains while being entertained. Perhaps people even want entertainment to challenge their brains.

This, I believe, whole-heartedly. And, in short (or long), this is why I refuse to write much shorter, 1-2 paragraph blog entries as some of my family (who so want me to be successful at this) have suggested. While they may make this suggestion because they believe it will draw bigger audiences, I believe that people want to engage, want to feel mentally uncomfortable, want to read about ideas and make connections between seemingly unrelated things. I cannot give you the best of who I am as a thinker, a writer, a question poser, if I only have 50 words to do so. This is not to contradict my blog entry on 'being concise,' because I also do not mean to stretch something out to the point where it becomes too flimsy and sheer to hold any weight. It is to confirm that I have faith in people... and I want to be a part of the world that wants to think... and think hard.... and think for extended periods. And then to pause, and later to return again and think some more. If anything, I want to be part of the movement the contends against shorter attention spans. In the end, I think it's worth it. Here's to a lengthy engagement.

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