"We are in attentional disarray"
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"We are in attentional disarray"

Although we are continually connected online, we have lost the ability to talk to one another, says sociologist Sherry Turkle. She was one of the first researchers to study digital culture. Today, she takes a critical view of the impact of increasing connectedness.

Ms. Turkle, according to the Youth Barometer, 54 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds in the US feel closer to their online community than to US society (49 percent) or to a religious community (40 percent). What do you make of this finding?

Sherry Turkle: This result is a natural outgrowth of the positive side of being able to stay in touch via social media if other forms of connection are allowed to atrophy. The challenge, I think, is to increasingly focus on using social media to enhance the ties of face-to-face encounters in our communities, to make that a priority.

Why?

We assume that encounters on social media do the emotional and social work that face-to-face encounters can do. But we make this assumption at our risk. We do not feel the same sense of commitment and responsibility for people we know only online. You can feel affiliated or close to a group, that is, you share their beliefs and are proud to associate with them, but do not feel responsible for the other members.

In all of the countries surveyed, except Brazil, respondents said they were responsible for their own online security and safety. Does that mean they have a greater sense of responsibility than we give them credit for?

Young people know that they are responsible because nobody else is paying attention or assuming responsibility. But that does not mean that they are acting responsibly. We know they are often not. For example, drivers can say they shouldn't text while driving, that is, that car manufacturers are not responsible for automatically disabling the phones of the person driving the car. But that doesn't mean drivers actually behave responsibly and don't text and drive.

You were an early and influential advocate of computer-mediated communication. You've become more skeptical in recent years. What happened?

One development, in particular, was central to the evolution in my thinking. In the early days we had to go to our computers when we wanted to pursue our online lives for a certain amount of time. Now we have our phones – they are always on and they are always on us. We are essentially always online. We are always dividing our attention between the people we can reach on our phones and the people we are with in person. We are in attentional disarray.

What effects of this attentional disarray concern you most?

Where to begin? Our phones constantly interrupt us and interfere with our capacity for solitude. But we need to be alone every now and then. In solitude, we find ourselves, we prepare ourselves to come to conversations ready to hear who other people really are, not just who we would like or need them to be.

The crisis of attention has led to a crisis in empathy.

Sherry Turkle 

Most respondents in the Youth Barometer study said that – outside of school or work – they spend at least two hours a day online. They don't want to be alone.

The capacity for solitude is a necessary step on the path to empathy. We have to be content with ourselves in order be able to hear what other people have to say. Solitude is also a necessary virtue because it is on the path to self-reflection. When we learn to listen to other people, it teaches us to listen to ourselves. Our conversations with others advance self-reflection, the "conversations with ourselves" that are the cornerstone for development but that continue throughout life.

And this development is disrupted by our mobile devices?

Absolutely. We are at a point where we have come to think of life as a kind of steady "feed," a flow of information, text messages, emails, chat, photos, videos, Facebook posts, Tweets and Instagrams. We have become increasingly intolerant of solitude. Indeed, recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts for as little as six minutes. In one recent experiment, college students were asked to sit alone without their phones for fifteen minutes. The study participants were asked, before the study began, if they ever considered giving themselves an electroshock to break the boredom. They said absolutely not. They would even pay to avoid a shock. But in a period of fifteen minutes alone without a device, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women who said they would never shock themselves had begun to do just that, rather than spend those minutes with their own thoughts.

Did the results of the experiment surprise you?

Not really. We all see that when people are alone in the checkout line at the supermarket or at a red light – they almost panic and reach for a device. And here is where the problem starts: When we struggle to pay attention to ourselves, we struggle to pay attention to each other.

Is this particularly pronounced in adolescents, since they've grown up with digital devices?

The toll that digital devices are taking on adolescents is not different from the toll it is taking on all of us. The crisis of attention has led to a crisis in empathy.

But don't adolescents have a different relationship with digital devices?

Adolescents are perhaps a special category, because they have grown up with this technology. They have never known a world without it. But everybody is distracted, regardless of age. Students text during classes, parents text at dinner with their families or when they're with their children at the park. Meanwhile children, too, text each other rather than talk to each other or, for that matter, look at the sky, allowing themselves to daydream. We want to be with each other, but at the same time we want to be connected to other people and places with our phones. The thing we now value most is control over where we put our attention.

What fundamentally new behaviors develop from this?

One example: Even the presence of a phone changes the atmosphere. It is alarming that new research shows that even the presence of a phone on the table changes what we talk about – even a phone that is turned off. We keep the conversation light and we form less of an empathic connection with each other. So it is not surprising that in the past 30 years we've seen a 40 percent decline in the markers for empathy among college students. The researchers link this drop to the new presence of digital communications.

How do devices manage to have such fundamental effects?

Our phones make us three promises. Firstly, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be. Secondly, that we will never have to be alone. And thirdly, that we will always be heard. But as I said before, when we can put our attention anywhere, we take our attention off each other. The ability to be alone is important in the development of the capacity both of self-reflection and of empathy. We are so focused on being heard that we have more difficulty listening to others.

No smartphone use in the kitchen or in the dining room.

Sherry Turkle 

How do you teach children solitude?

By being "alone with" them. Traditionally you would take a child for a quiet walk in nature. And then the child learns to feel comfortable being alone in nature. But now, when a parent walks with a child, a phone often comes along and children don't have the experience of being alone with a parent, let alone of being alone with a silent parent who is teaching a respect for quiet reflection. I interview so many children who say that they have never, literally never, had the experience of taking a walk to a local store with a parent without a phone coming along that interrupted conversations along the way.

What are the rules in your home? What rules did you have for your daughter?

The same rules I would ask everyone to follow. No smartphone use in the kitchen or in the dining room. In short, no smartphones during meals. Or in the car. These should be spaces that you reserve for conversation.

Are there other rules? On average, children in the US are getting their first smartphones around age ten.

Children under thirteen should never go to their bedrooms at night with their phones. There is a great temptation to text when you wake up in the middle of the night. And then it is hard to go back to sleep. Indeed, the greatest favor you can do your family is give everyone an old-fashioned alarm clock.

Should we stop using smartphones?

I'm not suggesting that we run away from our devices. I advocate that we have a more self-aware relationship with them. I'm optimistic because we are resilient. After only a few days without screens, children begin to relearn the ability to identify the feelings of others, to have empathy.

So you haven't gone from technology optimist to technology pessimist?

I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. So look up, look at each other, and start a conversation.