For twenty-eight years I’ve led creative writing workshops in public schools, and over that time I’ve witnessed, in classrooms, the changes wrought by Big Tech.
Last fall I worked in a high school class where most of the kids, thirty-two freshmen, shattered their attention every couple of minutes with phones or laptops. This made it hard for them to reach the level of stillness and focus required to immerse themselves in their writing.
Some folks like to blame the teachers. Why do they allow these devices in class? But on that front, it’s not always clear-cut. Certain school districts don’t have a straightforward tech use policy in place, or it’s unevenly enforced. In some cases, administrators don’t want to infringe upon personal rights; in other cases they leave enforcement up to the teachers. In many districts, the understaffed tech department is usually far behind the kids’ impressive ability to circumvent any imposed blocks and controls.
If you’ve ever taught thirty-two freshmen, and those kids had phones on them — and also their school-assigned laptops on their desk — you know what a slippery challenge it is to keep them from being drawn back to their screens. You remind them about putting away their device, and they nod and put it away. Six seconds later, when you look elsewhere, they’re eyeing a screen again.
Many of these kids, also, are getting between, say, five and six hours of sleep a night, often because they’re allowed to have their phone in their room. They need between eight and ten hours.
In my first session of a residency, I request that all screens be put away during our time together. I talk briefly about attention and courtesy, and about what writing and reading mean to me. I talk about the need to quiet down a bit in order to write something true and evocative, and how after a screen-viewing interruption it takes the brain several minutes to return to a state of full focus. I pass along the pediatricians’ advice about sleep.
During this talk, most of the kids meet my eyes and several put away their devices. And there are others who look at me like, Right. Whatever you say, sir.
In this recent residency, as I was reading aloud Langston Hughes’s classic short story “Thank You, Ma’m,” I paused at one point and looked up from the page. Out of thirty-two students, about a third were openly or surreptitiously focused on a screen of some sort. This was unprecedented in my experience. These were smart, kind kids who, whenever they could finally grab a few moments of focus, often wrote some strong lines. In poems, stories, responses to prompts. And many of them claimed to agree about trying to avoid constantly broken attention, they understand that our brains don’t function well amid that shattering.
Yet there they were, during a short reading of a vivid, suspenseful two-page story, playing video games or texting.
Something else is clearly going on. It’s not all just about personal restraint or a school administration’s policy or lack thereof. And in many cases it’s not just about the various home-life stresses that some kids have to endure, difficult as they are.
Which brings me to a book I recently read, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. A fellow parent and educator recommended it, and I found that it helped clarify my understanding of some of the deeper forces at work when it comes to our attention crisis.
Big Tech companies, including the social media giants, have from their beginning worked hard to make their products as addictive as possible. They want us — and our kids — to stay on screen. They’ve used studies in human psychology to exploit our weaknesses and engineer their products to hook us. The longer we’re using their site, the happier their advertisers and shareholders are. (I’m probably, as somebody who has one foot in the 1800s, slightly late to the game in coming to a full awareness of this fact.)
Hari also points out that many people within the tech industry itself have begun to speak out about the societal havoc their (usually former) companies have wrought. Too often, software engineers and their backers haven’t considered the ethical dimensions of their work, to say nothing of the long-term effects of it. Hook young brains on screens as early as possible? Good for the bottom line.
And so here we are. We all see it each day, regardless of whether or not we’re witnessing the crushing effects of it in a classroom. We see the screen addiction, and the rise in paranoia, fear, and anger as a result of social media algorithms that push lies, paranoia, and anger. We see the kids who are simply unable to look away from a screen for more than a few minutes at a time.
Something’s got to give.
I hope that Johann Hari is right, that there are signs of hope, signs of resistance. More people are becoming more aware of the forces that constantly work in shameless ways to distract us.
To be sure, as a species we haven’t handled the tech boom too gracefully. Maybe we can evolve to the point where soon enough we achieve at least a measure of restraint and wisdom. Maybe we’ll finally realize that our government needs to step in, boldly, since these companies won’t voluntarily change their business model in any substantive way. In any case, the current situation is now to the point where it’s nearly unmanageable. We can’t have classrooms of kids who cannot for the life of them focus and expect that to turn out very well.
Let’s reclaim our lives in the real world — the gift of our lives — before they’ve passed us by while we were staring for so many hours each day at a screen, forgetting that we even had a choice.