Digital Distraction: When do we stop listening and paying attention?

We have probably all had experience of being ‘digitally side-lined’ by someone who seems to find a screen more interesting than what we are saying. We can be talking about something we view as important, only to find that part-way through the person we are sharing with is grabbing their phone to check their Whatsapp messages or scroll through Facebook to see if anything ‘new’ (and more exciting?!) is calling for their attention. And how does that make us feel? Interesting? Valued? Or unable to compete for that person’s attention with the latest post about what their favourite celebrity had for tea?

As well as being on the receiving end of being digitally side-lined, I am also definitely aware that there are times when I am the perpetrator. My biggest weakness in this respect is probably TV…

I recently watched a home video of me as a child – scary for so many reasons (not least the fact that I had a “terrific” hair-cut for most of my early years...). In one part of the video, my Dad filmed me watching TV, and the 3-year old sat in front of him refused to answer any of his questions or engage with anything that drew her attention away from the cartoon in front of her. She was lost to the exciting world of television (and has continued to get lost in that world since).

If I am meeting a friend for a “proper catch-up”, I prefer to avoid somewhere with a TV if I can, because I’m aware that even if there is something on TV in which I have absolutely ZERO interest my eyes might start slowly sliding away from making contact with the friend opposite me and ever so subtly (or not so subtly) move across to the bright beacon in my eye-line. It will suck my attention away from the conversation I’m engaging in.

But does it matter if we get digitally distracted when we are communicating? We might all have our different takes on that, but if I think about the most meaningful or productive conversations I have had with people, it is probably when I feel we’ve given each other our full, undivided attention. Sometimes we multi-task because we might really need to: often we do it out of habit.

So can mindfulness help with the digital distractions that can interrupt our interactions with other people and divide our attention?

Mindfulness describes the practice of paying attention to the present, on purpose and non-judgmentally. If we cultivate this skill and try to bring it to our interactions with others, can we notice a difference?

If you are interested in giving this a go, try this very short exercise. Remember to approach the exercise with an attitude of non-judgement (we have so many things calling on our attention on a daily basis, we are bound to get distracted sometimes) and curiosity (be interested in what you notice, if anything!).

1.      See if there is a time this week when:

a.      you are engaged in conversation with someone (it could be on the phone or in person, at work or out socially); and

b.      you get distracted by technology (it may be that an email pops up when you are on the phone at your desk, or that you are having a drink and you catch the TV out of the corner of your eye, or that you want to check your mobile part-way through the conversation to see if you have any new whatsapp messages)

2.      If this happens, see if you can spot when your attention is being drawn away from what the person is saying.

3.      Without beating yourself up about having being distracted (it happens to all of us), see if you can gently guide your attention back to the conversation you are having right now.

4.      Did this change the interaction at all? What did you notice?

I’d love to hear how you get on. And I’ll be continuing to remember to try this myself, particularly when there is a TV in sight…