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High School Students Can’t Focus and Here’s Why

4 Causes of Distraction from Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Cell phones have taken over our lives. And I know that sounds simplistic and ranty. But y’know what? It’s true. I find myself increasingly using my phone… even when I don’t want to. It’s just there. So I grab it. And then I start skimming and scrolling. I know I use my phone too often as a crutch. It’s too easy to do.

And it’s not just me, either. Heck, I can’t even show a movie in class anymore without kids drifting off to their phones. I’ll say it again: They can’t even watch a movie. That kind of distraction is more than distraction; it’s dependency. (Not to mention that it kills your enthusiasm for teaching!) I won’t go so far as to say that distraction is an addiction, but Johann Hari, the New York Times Best-Selling author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, might call it that.

I read Stolen Focus, the New York Times best-selling author’s new book a couple of weeks ago. It’s ranked as one of Amazon’s Top Ten Best Books of 2022.

The book’s title immediately resonated with me because I’m curious about what’s happening with our attention spans. Students tell me frequently that they don’t read books. They tell me they can’t focus. They tell me books are boring. “I get too distracted,” they say. “I’d rather watch a video or a documentary than read a book,” I also hear.

Digital technology — specifically, the internet, social media, and the ultra-convenient Smart phone — has cultivated an epidemic of distraction and a loss of focus. Quoting Dr. Joel Nigg, professor and clinical psychologist at Oregon Science and Health University, Hari writes, “…we need to ask if we are now developing ‘an attentional pathogenic culture’ — an environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us, and you have to swim upstream to achieve it.”

Stolen Focus author Johann Hari also authored Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. Watch the TED Talk here.

According to Hari, we need to heal our attention spans and regain the ability to focus for three reasons. The book’s introduction includes those reasons:

  1. We need to take back our focus because “a life full of distractions is, at an individual level, a diminished life”.
  2. We need to take back our focus because “this fracturing of attention isn’t just causing problems for us as individuals — it’s causing crises in our whole society.”
  3. We need to take back our focus because — if we understand our loss — we can.

In the following fourteen chapters, Hari outlines twelve causes of our epidemic of distraction. Four of those reasons — all at the top of his list — seemed especially significant and prescient to me as they are also reminders of how I can minimize my own distractions and regain own my ability to focus.

Hari’s Four Top Causes of Distraction

1. The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering

Speed: Hari’s ideas on this cause boil down to this: “More speed means less comprehension.” Our brains cannot operate as fast as our devices can to process the increased speed in the information that I consume. We need to slow down.

Switching: Basically, Hari shatters the myth of multi-tasking. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re not. Instead, our brains are switching from one task to another. For example, when I switch from writing a thesis statement to answering a text, my brain changes gears to read that text. Plus, when I return to the thesis statement, my brain doesn’t simply pick up where it left off. It has to backtrack to resume the earlier thinking. Our brains cannot multi-task; they’re built for mono-tasking.

Filtering: The increased speed and switching means our brains must also learn to filter out irrelevant or unimportant information. That filtering takes a toll on our abilities to focus as well.

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2. The Crippling of Our Flow States

When we find ourselves getting lost in an especially meaningful task or hobby, we experience what Hari calls “flow.” Finding fulfillment in an activity (for example, painting or rock climbing) that we can lose ourselves in fortifies our lives with focus and purpose. However, going out for coffee won’t give us flow. Neither will watching a movie, lounging by a pool, or scrolling social media.

Hari writes that flow state activities should be 1) clearly defined, 2) meaningful, and 3) at the edge of our abilities. They can’t be too easy or too difficult. We won’t achieve fulfilment in a flow activity if it doesn’t challenge us.

And because part of why I’m interested in this topic is because I care about my students, here’s the sentence that leaped from the page as I read it:

“Starved of flow, we become stumps of ourselves, sensing somewhere what we might have been.”

Johann Hari | Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — And How to Think Deeply Again

Is it possible students are suffering more anxiety and stress because they’re not experiencing “flow” and — here’s the kicker — deep down inside they know they’re falling short of their potentials? Could that realization be the actual root of their anxiety?

3. The Collapse of Sustained Reading

Hari writes that sustained reading of printed is plummeting. In fact, Hari writes, “…between 2008 and 2016 the market for novels fell by 40 percent. In one single year — 2011– paperback fiction sales sales collapsed by 26 percent.”

He also contends that reading a novel or other longer work is one of the most common “flow state” activities that most people have participated in. But let’s be real: for many high school students, the last time they read a complete book was in middle school. However, allowing ourselves to return to quiet, undistracted periods of reading will improve our focus.

This is probably the most disheartening prospect for me to consider with students. I’m just not sure how to effectively encourage kids to read. (When I hype up reading, I picture myself as the teacher in the old Charlie Brown cartoons who drones unintelligibly to the classoom.)

I know their enthusiasm hinges on finding a book they can get lost in. That’s really hard to do, especially given the state of many school libraries. While I have known many students who read for pleasure, those kids are in the extreme minority.

Reading from screens is also having a negative effect on reading.

Here’s a thought from Hari: “Reading books trains us to read in a particular way — in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading from screens, she (Anne Mangen, professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway) has discovered, trains us to read in a different way — in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another.” The author adds that Mangen’s studies conclude, “We’re more likely to scan and skim” when we read on screens, … — we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need.” As a result, we lose the ability to immerse ourselves in another world, and to experience the deep thought that our brains crave.

Screen reading is contaminating our book reading, Hari writes, adding that Mangen informed, “‘…we are now losing our ability to read long texts anymore,’ and we are also losing our ‘cognitive patience… (and) the stamina and the ability to deal with cognitively challenging texts.'”

As a literature instructor, this is indeed my call to arms.

4. The End of Mind Wandering

The fourth and final cause of distraction that I’d like to share with you from Hari’s book dispels the idea that “downtime” is time wasted. On the contrary, we must allow our minds to roam freely. Have you ever felt that your best ideas come to you, for example, when you’re driving or in the shower? When our minds are allowed to rest, we are better able to think deeply. According to Hari, three things happen when we allow our minds to wander. Here they are:

  1. We slowly make sense of the world. He uses an example of the activity our brains engage in when we read. As we read, we comprehend the action of the book, but we also make behind-the-scenes connections to our own lives, the earlier chapters of the book, and what might happen next. Hari writes, “Having enough mental space to roam is essential for you to be able to understand a book.”
  2. We make new connections between things, which often produces solutions to your problems.
  3. We start to think about the future. We are freed up to prepare for what’s next by reflecting on what’s passed.

So many of Hari’s ideas are provocative and practical. Some of the other causes of distraction that he discusses in Stolen Focus include:

This has been one of the most valuable books I’ve read recently. Check out a copy from your library or order one to read soon. At 283 pages, it’s a quick and engaging read.

Thanks for reading! Struggle with teaching when students have their phones, laptops, and airpods in? Do you wonder where this is all headed? Have your read Stolen Focus?

Share your thoughts below or on my Contact page. Happy teaching! Have a great December!

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