*Stolen Focus, Alone Together, and The Shallows, are three critical read books written a decade apart, that articulate an urgent wake-up call to the implications of lives lived so extensively and intensely online.

The notion that we can attend to numbers of different activities and information online at the same time, and expect we’ll be better off for it, that we’ll be more social, more knowledgeable, more ‘in the loop’, is irrational. Simply, because we don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to adequately negotiate and manage the sheer nature, scale and design of the ‘online scape’ from a cognitive perspective.

This is not only about adults, but our teens, children, and those very young. Research indicates toddlers’ brains are wiring differently from the get-go, and, teen and adult brains are re-wiring as we spend more time online. Screen-time is not only about an amount of time, it’s what we’re doing and how often we’re doing it, that is important.

Pursuits such as social media, and sites/apps with multi-sensory experiences (think even f-2-f meet ups such as zoom at times and content/visual/social overload that occurs) draw on many parts of our brain and ‘multi-tasking’ is unhelpful to our biological computer that has capacity limits. 

In toddlers, language development and comprehension is being crimped, while visual cortex development is strengthening due to more intense exposure to screen content e.g., moving imagery, and highly visual online content many children can now access for long periods of time. AAP recommend those 0-18 months nil screen time, but that horse has bolted, at an unrealised cost.

As language and associated literacies of reading, communicating etc, are developing at a slower rate, the flow-on effects on learning capacity and acquisition of cognitive, social and emotional skills throughout these formative learning years is concerning.

Reading is multi-sensory, and when we do most of this online as opposed to paper texts, we are likely to be “plunged into an ecosystem of interruption technologies” (Cory Doctorow). The distraction and pull of many aesthetic and sensory elements that make up our online experiences today are impacting for example, our ability to embed into our long term memory, the important stuff.

That so much learning happens online in many schools is also a consideration when we are finding that comprehension is greater when using paper-based texts in comparison with screen-based texts, as discussed in a meta-analysis of studies (2020). Our eyes read online text differently from text on paper-based (or non-screen) mediums.

By design, everything is crafted to ‘grab’ our attention, so much so, our ability to sit with something in a ‘singular-tasking’ way is a growing challenge for many, and when pulled out of a ‘deep read’ or piece of work by a notification or disruption, it can take around 20 plus minutes to return to that deep state.

Not necessarily new news, but a bit of a ‘new year’ challenge or nudge to myself to take stock of life’s priorities and support myself to find balance in the ways I engage online and offline.

Note to self and anyone interested, read picture books and paperbacks to your kids, and go to the public library together. Read books for pleasure and find that ‘flow’ state of losing oneself in another world and time. Turn off device notifications, those voices not critical to work or life. Unsubscribe to things that you repeatedly say to yourself, “I’ll get to that later” but never do. Check we get long, deep sleep, allowing our brains to recalibrate. Tally how many times we respond to, or check our phones when in the company of family and others, and even in the quiet moments alone.

Small life audits will definitely make a difference to my life this year.

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