A study by Microsoft released in the spring underscored a worrying consequence to the ubiquity of cellphones. It found that the human attention span has dwindled down from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, a second less than a goldfish’s purported attention span. The research proves that our ability to focus is not only getting worse, but our social interactions are also taking a hit too. We are all familiar with the experience of being in a circle of friends, having a good time and enjoying each other’s company. As the conversation flows and the night goes on, it is likely that at least one person is on their phone. At one point of the night, they look up and say, “What? I didn’t hear that.” This is concerning, given that a study from 2012 found that people who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices showed higher levels of empathetic concern compared to conversations in presence of of mobile devices. While this shift should worry everyone, it is particularly concerning to college students. These years are a formative period for students, and it is imperative we not let these years pass distracted by technology.
The rise of laptops in the classroom has catalyzed a new debate on how students should take notes, but this doesn’t take into account how technology changes how students interact with one another before they leave their dorm in the morning. According to another recent study, 62 percent of students either text, talk on the phone or use a computer or tablet while they are with other students. In a world driven by digital distractions, we are losing the art of listening, our ability to empathize and to interact with the people around us. While there are benefits to technological advances that can increase capability for socialization, the virtual world leads us — quite ironically — to social isolation. Technology affects how we interact with each other on an interpersonal level, especially when it comes to the listening portion of communication.
The art of listening can take many forms — from walking in New York City to interacting with students and professors in the classroom. By centering our attention to the small screen in our palms, we shut out the world beyond our device. Listening also helps us react to our environment quicker than any other senses — NYU Public Safety emails stress not using headphones while walking around the city precisely because it reduces this ability to stay safe. We need to evaluate how they use technology and ask ourselves whether it truly connects us or isolates us from one another. It is time that we put our phones down and listen to the world around us.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, September 28 print edition. Email Sunny Hong at [email protected]