The Trouble with Focusing on Media in the Digital Age

Fellow blogger Thoughts That Move recently put out an article describing how hard it is for him to choose media in an environment that bombards him with it from every direction. It’s a problem I share to some extent: there’s just too many things I want to do, too many works I want to get around to. I’m not very old, so I assume I’ve got plenty of time left on this planet, and yet I know that I’ll never be able to consume all the media I’m currently interested in, and the amount of interesting media increases by the day.

And yet, that isn’t even the most pressing issue I have with my media consumption. It’s easy enough to accept that I can’t get around to everything: I just have to prioritize, and even if it doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it a lot better. No, my real problem is that I simply can’t focus on the works I do get around to. Constant access to the internet and social media has rewired my brain, making it nigh-impossible to focus my attention for a long period of time, unless I’m incapable of distracting myself. Overabundance is a much smaller problem to me, because my low attention span is very directly harming my ability to consume certain types of media at all.

To start with, I have a hard time watching movies. I’m fine in theaters, since I don’t want to distract others with my phone, but at home I have nothing holding me back. I’ve been so conditioned by the length of TV anime that I feel the need to pause every 20 minutes or so in order to look at my phone to check twitter or some other time-waster. Inevitably this leads to me getting sidetracked for long periods, before finally remembering that I’m in the middle of watching a movie. It took me four hours to watch Gundam F91, and it’s only a two hour movie. Granted, it being bad made me more likely to pause it, but it takes me too long to watch most movies, not just bad ones.

What’s worse is that I’m aware of how long it takes me watch a movie, so I usually just don’t start them. Unless I’ve got at least three hours where I’m not doing anything, it doesn’t seem worth it to start. I can watch a whole cour of anime, which takes far longer than any movie, but because each episode is short it feels like less of a time investment, and my brain is cool with that. Do I get it? No. But it’s basically stopped me from watching a large number of anime movies alongside live action ones. It’s something I’ve been trying to correct, with only some success. Even when I am able to stop myself from looking at my phone, the perception that I will still stops me from starting movies in the first place.

Movies get off pretty lightly though. Books fare far worse under my non-existent attention span. To be blunt, I can barely read books anymore. Manga is fine, as the short chapters and relatively low amounts of text make them an easy read. Novels on the other hand are almost impossible to read now, as the large time investment and somewhat long chapters make it hard to focus, especially when it’s so easy to put a book down. I can control the flow and speed of a book, unlike most other media, and that makes me feel comfortable taking constant breaks in order to satisfy my obsession with checking my phone. Eventually I just drop the book, because the experience stops being enjoyable while constantly taking breaks, but I’ve been conditioned into taking those breaks, so it’s not like I can just stop.

This lack of attention span even hurts my TV anime watching, as it makes it hard to really get a good marathon going. Only video games avoid this fate, probably because they have built-in pause systems and are engaging enough on both a physical and mental level that I’m less likely to get distracted.

I want to be clear that this problem doesn’t stem from boredom. I’m usually fairly engaged with the work in question whenever I put it down. I’ve done this to basically all of my favorite shows, as well as books that I was enjoying. Hell, I’ve been periodically checking twitter while writing this very post, and writing this is certainly enjoyable. The fact that I enjoy the things I put down is particularly awful, because I’m well aware that I’m hurting my own experience of things I like.

The worst part is that I know this is all my own fault. I don’t have ADHD. As a kid I could do all of these activities for hours without a second thought. Reading was my primary hobby in elementary school, and I obviously enjoyed watching movies as a kid. It’s only with the introduction of internet access that this problem has developed, and it feels awful knowing I could have prevented it from becoming a problem.

I don’t know if it’s too late. I’ve been forcing myself to read books and watch movies lately, trying to keep my phone away from my immediate vicinity, and it’s starting to work. I know that once I actually get thirty or forty minutes deep into any of these activities I’ll stop getting distracted, but it’s just so hard to get over that hump. I feel a compulsion to check my phone during that period, and resisting it is hard.

And this whole issue only adds to the overabundance problem. There aren’t only too many things; those things take me too long to consume, only slowing the rate at which I get to the works I’m interested in. Burnout combines with procrastination and distraction, leading to a dismal sense of stagnation, while I endlessly refresh twitter and reddit, hoping something can occupy my attention, because I know that the media I actually care about won’t do so for long enough.

Sure, I’m trying to fix this, but can I ever truly do so? I’m sure I can make myself read books again, but can I ever get rid of the impulse? Can I ever again sit down and watch a 2-cour show in one day? Can I ever stop the desire to check my phone? Or is it too late? Has constant internet access fundamentally changed my brain in a way that can’t be reversed? I just don’t know, and I’m afraid I’ll never find out.

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Focusing on Media in the Digital Age

  1. I absolutely deal with this same issue of a low attention span. Mine *is* influenced by ADHD so it’s always been an issue for me but the way we’ve all been conditioned by instantaneous access to social technology has imparted elements of it to all of society. It’s hard to disconnect from the world, even when the thing you’re trying to do instead is something you love.

    Twitter is my vice too, and before I started my blog I had deleted a former Twitter account to avoid such a predicament (of course, now I’ve slipped back into old habits if not worse than ever, lol). There have been days over the past few months where I became so glued to social media (Twitter, Discord, etc.) that I get nothing else done for an entire day. It’s that bad sometimes, and it plays right into the overabundance of media that I talked about in my own piece.

    When I’m able to control it, the ways I do it are fairly extreme: logging out of all social media, putting my phone somewhere else in the room (it rarely comes to my couch anymore when I watch/play stuff), deleting apps, etc. I’ll do anything that I can to put extra steps between me and the subconscious muscle memory of looking at my phone or tabbing into Twitter on my computer.

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    1. Zeria

      Yeah, I don’t know if it’s gotten quite that bad for me, at least in terms of anime, but I definitely do similar things at times. I would give up social media, but twitter is just too useful to give up, so I feel limited. Like I said, I have been making progress lately, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to read the way I could when I was a kid again, which is somewhat sad.

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      1. Which is kind of funny given that children are supposedly supposed to have shorter attention spans… thank you technology for turning us all into eternal children.

        And yep. I rejoined Twitter as a professional necessity and I’d keep it around because of my social connections. Don’t want to lose those all again like the last time I blew up a Twitter account. I haven’t had Facebook in nearly two years though.

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  2. Pingback: A Place to Start: My Best Posts – Floating into Bliss

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