A Generation That's Eternally Unfocused: 'I Can't Do Anything for 15 Minutes Without Checking My Phone'

  • More and more people are realizing that they have a problem paying attention. The smartphone seems to be the culprit.

No comments Twitter Flipboard E-mail

Imagine, dear reader, that you’re starting to watch a movie, read a book, or work on your computer. How many minutes will pass before your hand starts to reach into your pocket to pull out your phone and check it for new notifications? Or until you open social media to see what’s going on? Probably not many.

“I’ve been experiencing a loss of concentration lately. I manage to get through my work, but I find myself getting easily distracted by my phone. I also struggle to read books. I tried setting time limits for using my phone, but I keep going back to it every ten minutes.” This is the beginning of the story told by Toni (whose name was changed to protect her privacy, as were all the testimonials in this article), a 35-year-old journalist specializing in video games. She talks about how her attention span has eroded over time: “When I was 25, I was much more focused and could spend hours on a specific task. Now, it’s really difficult for me to do that.”

Roberto, a video editor at a video production company, explains that he's noticed something getting worse lately: “I don’t post too much on social media, but I still spend a lot of time checking content on it. TikTok was a game changer. I had to set a time limit on my use to try to control it because it’s like a bottomless pit. It’s endless. You always see more and more videos that you like, and you just can’t seem to stop. You don't have to think or search for anything. It’s like it reads your mind to give you what you like. It’s very addictive.” He’s 28 years old.

Sara, a 36-year-old tech copywriter, shares a similar experience: “On January 1, 2021, I set a goal to better manage my distractions. That has been challenging. I get easily distracted, especially by Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, which have harmed me significantly. I’ve made progress, but I still have relapses. I still have a long way to go.”

“Everything moves so quickly on our screens that when you go to the real world, everything seems to move too slowly.”

The prevalence of these testimonials is evident when one discusses the challenge of maintaining focus, particularly away from a phone screen. Acknowledging this tendency can encourage others to do the same. Many of us check our phones every 10 to 15 minutes, even when it may not be necessary. Our attention is frequently diverted, and we become easily bored with various tasks.

Generation 1

“If it happens to so many people, then there’s something behind it. It has to do with the way screens are made. They seek to capture our maximum attention with the minimum effort on our part,” psychologist Silvia Álava says. “When you read a book or do some other activity, you have to maintain sustained attention. When you look at a screen, it does that by itself. The stimuli change a lot, both visually and auditorily. Everything moves at such a speed that when you go at the speed of the real world, it seems boring and slow. That’s where things like watching videos or listening to voice messages at 2x speed come from. In the real world, you get bored because you're not hyperstimulated. You’re the one who has to keep your attention.”

Roberto points out that TikTok represents a turning point. It’s no coincidence. “TikTok is the perfect example: very short videos that constantly change designed to get you hooked. They’re stimuli. Because TikTok understands the neuropsychological mechanisms behind attention, they manage to keep us engaged,” Álava notes. As a result, she adds, we've become accustomed to fast-paced content and immediate stimuli. She believes that this has impacted our daily lives, making us less patient with longer forms of entertainment, such as movies, if they don’t engage us from the beginning.

Distractions at Work

All four interviewees agree that distractions have consequences for their work. Although not to a dramatic extent, there have been more distractions than they would’ve liked. No one has been fired for it, but they do tend to work longer hours than they should to compensate for moments of absent-mindednesses, or greatly extend deliveries to meet deadlines. “I have a hard time staying focused for more than fifteen minutes. When there’s no other option and you have to be at 100%, then I can do it because there’s no other option. The rest of the time, you’re having a snack, taking breaks, trying to keep busy with something that doesn’t require too much effort,” Roberto says.

“It has happened to me even in work meetings. When I talk to my coworkers, I get distracted. A few years ago, that didn’t happen to me,” Sara says. “Something I also notice is that I don’t enjoy my free time as much I used to. I don’t know how to manage it well. I feel the need to look at my phone, and I spend a lot of time like that instead of doing what I really want to do.” However, Sara adds that she doesn’t exceed certain limits, like when she’s at the movies: “Some people are incapable of spending two hours watching a movie without checking their phone and disturbing others with the light, but I don’t do that.”

The fast and constant stimuli that Álava mentions also influence the moments when we’re more prone to distractions, or when we seek out our phones as an instant escape. “I notice that I get more distracted when facing a long, difficult, or uncomfortable task. If I know I have something ahead of me that will take many hours, my brain invites me to distract myself with something else,” Sara explains. And so the scrolling sessions begin, moving from one social network to another, checking messages, and so on.

In 2008, a study conducted by Gloria Mark, a computer science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a researcher in social computing, warned about the negative impact of “interrupted work.” The study found that frequent interruptions, such as checking your email every few minutes, led to decreased performance and increased stress for employees due to the constant change in focus. That was in 2008. Today, it’s widely understood that multitasking is detrimental to productivity, and constantly switching between work and checking your phone is another form of multitasking.

“I Want To Make Something With My Hands Again”

Like many others in the media industry, Roberto has ended up using mainly screens for leisure and business. His work involves editing videos and he entertains himself by watching other videos, playing video games, and consuming content on social media. A turning point. “Now I feel like signing up for pottery classes because I want to create things with my hands. Something that doesn’t require a computer, like sports. But then at the gym, you see people sitting for a long time with their phones...”

The smartphone has replaced many tools, such as the calendar, phone book, and music player. Roberto, who enjoys ceramics and sports, wants to separate certain activities from his smartphone. “I recently wanted to buy a Game Boy, the classic one with cartridges. I didn’t want an emulator on my phone, but rather a standalone gadget. I’ve even seen people wanting to use their iPods again to listen to music without relying on their phones.”

Álava describes this feeling as a sense of self-satisfaction and fulfillment: “When we engage in creative activities using our hands, we feel a deep sense of usefulness and connection to our creative side. Traditional crafts like crocheting, which were popular in our grandparents’ time, are experiencing a resurgence due to this feeling.”

Besides finding satisfaction in artistic and creative activities, most of us understand that boredom is actually necessary. It helps create empty spaces where we can start to think, generate ideas, and let our creativity flow. These moments aren’t necessarily linked to work. They simply allow us time to reflect. The habit of reaching for our phones during moments of boredom, such as in a waiting room or while riding an elevator, also eliminates these valuable spaces.


Generation 2

We consulted with another psychologist, Francisco Tabernero, to find out if there’s any way to regain our ability to concentrate or if's has been permanently affected. Good news. “This is something that can be recovered once we start working on those attention processes. It’s not a case of brain damage,” Álava, the first psychologist, says.

Francisco agrees: “If my attention were deteriorating, it would mean my brain is deteriorating, and that’s not the case. The compulsive behavior of constantly checking the phone is simply interfering with tasks that require sustained attention.”

This compulsive behavior may seem similar to that of a smoker who’s constantly searching for their cigarette, but Tabernero relates it more to the mechanics of gambling. “The cigarette doesn’t bring pleasure or a benefit; it’s not positive reinforcement. People smoke for negative reinforcement, to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. The phone explains addictive behavior because we don’t know when the reward will come, similar to a slot machine. We’re constantly seeking the prize in the form of a photo to share with friends, a video that makes us laugh, or a text message that we enjoy reading... The comparison should be made with a slot machine.”

The key lies in increasing awareness and taking gradual steps to use phones more consciously, rather than out of habit. “For instance, setting goals to spend 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then one hour without looking at your phone can help break the habit,” Tabernero says. “It’s more of a behavioral issue than an attention problem.”

“Some individuals seek psychological help not primarily for this reason, but because they feel they're heavily addicted to their phones. This addiction begins to adversely affect various aspects of their lives, including their self-esteem,” he adds. Similar to cases of compulsive gambling, people often seek therapy only when the symptoms have become so apparent that their entire social circle has recognized them as a serious issue.

While it may not be common to reach such an extreme, the loss of attention in various areas due to excessive phone use doesn’t appear to be a minor problem.

Image | Javier Lacort using Midjourney

Related | How to ‘Dumb Down’ Your Phone: These Apps Want You to Be Less Glued to Its Small Screen

Home o Index