The Electronic Parasite

Over the last 8 years of my life, particularly through my life in high school and University, everyone is always asking about my phone, perhaps more than I’m actually on it. Everyone wants to know what everyone is paying attention to. Attention, attention, attention. What could possibly be distracting me from whatever I’m supposed to be doing?

ATTENTION! New things require attention. News grabs attention. It is completely possible in my mind that new = notification. Because when I am notified, I am drawn to my phone like a bug to a night light. There is a habitual need to put my attention on what is demanding it and reply. What if it’s an emergency? What if it’s important? What if I miss out? That stupid red notification symbol will get me every time.

I know from myself and from friends that we open apps and our phones just to be rid of that damn notification symbol. Inhale, exhale. Notification gone. I am updated. I have been productive. Nothing is wrong. Everything is right in the world.

However, I have noticed a few abnormal habits that have developed.

Phantom vibration syndrome. Most people know what I mean by this. You SWEAR you just felt your phone vibrate and now YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT! ATTENTION! You open your phone just to see nothing there. Lots of people can testify that this is a real condition and it baffles everyone, yet, it’s harmless.

And what about the mindless checking of your phone, where you open it and do absolutely nothing except scroll through the home pages, almost searching for something to pay attention to. There’s no notifications, nothing. There was just a need to open the phone, JUST CHECK and make sure you didn’t miss anything, and then go back to whatever you were supposed to be doing. Perhaps this happens more out of boredom, rather than as flashback to when your phone vibrated.

The worst that truly bothers me is when I check Facebook and I have it open on both my phone and computer. There is no reason for this whatsoever. It normally happens when I’m in class and bored, but that incessant need to BE UPDATED as often as possible irks me.

I think you know when you’re addicted to something when these dysfunctional attention syndromes arise. But is it necessarily a big deal? Yes. I’m trying to convince the whole population to give a shit — YOUR ATTENTION IS BEING DEMANDED ALL THE TIME! They know we know how much attention we give our phones. Advertisers and corporations want your attention and your data. We know that. Now what? Well, what are you missing out on when you erratically check your phone? At what point in every moment that we did we feel the need to pay attention to our phones?

I am critical of those who claim that this is not natural. Even when individual cell phones didn’t exist, people found other ways to distract themselves in class. Reading newspapers in public, for example. Passing notes or doodling in class. When we are in stagnant situations like sitting on transit, our attention isn’t being demanded, and why go through another mindless, routine, and systematic day, accepting the lack of control we have over our lives, when instead, for a moment, we can retake that control and take back our ATTENTION by deciding what to do with it?

For classrooms, teachers should not blame the phone but instead, wonder at which point students felt the need to be distracted. Is it the way the content is being taught? Is the content engaging? If kids feel like they already know something, or that something is irrelevant, perhaps it is time we challenge them and make it relevant for them. WHY SHOULD THEY GIVE YOU THEIR ATTENTION?

I am asked yet again how often I check my phone. First, I would have to break down when I mindlessly check it, like I’ve previously described, and when I feel I am being productive. When I consider myself being productive on my phone, I am checking messages, emails, making playlists or just lists in general, creating events and schedules on my calendar. This, in my opinion, is actually constructive. I am using the phone for what it was supposed to be for; as an aid in my daily life to help me be a productive citizen, student, friend, and family member. There are mindless messages, and constructive conversations.

I dismiss any arguments and criticisms to how much time is spent on phones when it is not defined as to what is constructive and what isn’t productive time on the phone, or even social media. A lot of work revolves around social media and being available in and contributing to digital spaces. In this day and age, how could anyone’s attention NOT be diverted to check their phones once in a while when we’ve all been trained to? Repercussions from mom and dad if we didn’t text or call back in a specific amount of time. Missing out on an opportunity or event, or missing the notification about an event when something about it changed. Loss of a job if our employers didn’t receive an email fast enough. This is literally Psych 101: over the years of negative reinforcement, we have been trained to check our phones. Obviously this is dependent on age and many variables unique to everyone, but the argument is still relevant. And we are still inevitably told that everything we have been trained to do is bad and wrong.

We live in a world where our attention is battled over and equivalent to work value. So much so, we crave times we aren’t on the grid anymore. We look at vacation as a time where we aren’t obliged to look at our damn phones all the time, where notifications can’t reach us and we have agency to look at them.

Nothing comes free, something is always given up. Everything must be moderated. My suggestion to anyone who feels they check their phones too much is to simply put your phone on silent. You can change the settings so that it notifies you when you get phone calls, but not when you get texts or notifications from apps. You’d be surprised how much less you may look at your phone, because now your ATTENTION isn’t being demanded, it is being given with your own discretion.

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