How Facebook Changed My Attention Span... What Did You Say?

4 years ago

There are a plethora of topics I’d like to address in my writing, and I find myself thinking about them in these kinds of terms:

"As I was scrubbing the toilet today, M asked if he could help.  I told him no, that it was a Mommy job.  I immediately regretted it.  Daddys can scrub toilets, too, damnit!"

"I need help designing a website.  Does anyone know anyone who (knows anyone who knows anyone who) can help me?"

"I am ironing a button-down shirt for a job interview and what the HELL.  If it’s not already, I vote that ironing should become a lost art."

"What is with men and cooking meat?  I suck at it and my husband rocks.  It’s just true."

"Just found a heap of old photos from high school and college, and all I can say is I'M SORRY to everybody who had to endure me then. Really. Very. Sorry."

Because these are the ways in which I am now sharing my life -- in these punchlines, these sound bytes -- I find myself narrating to myself the Facebook post that will most wittily describe my actions AS I’M DOING the action.

So not only has Facebook become the thing that I feel compelled to check every hour or so throughout the day, even as my children demonstrate that they need my immediate attention, even as I excuse those needs by explaining to them and to myself that I have needs too, not only has Facebook drawn me into its folds like street drugs draw junkies, it has also changed the way in which I actually experience my life.

This feels like a big deal, and not in the best of ways.


What is to be done about this inevitable deterioration of my attention span?  I’ve already asked for a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday.  Reading a full-length article, as opposed to the Us Weekly pretty-girl photos I’ve been indulging in since my birthday last year feels like a good first step.

But is it enough to solve this problem on a personal level?

To adopt the position that if I’m okay, it’s okay?  I feel somehow disturbed by the realization that we are becoming a nation (nay!  a globe!) of people who cannot keep our brains in one place for more than the brief rising and falling of a Facebook post.

Perhaps I should mention that this theory is (a) probably not original and (b) possibly not supported by any data. If there are other people saying the same thing and/ or if there is data to support my theory, I have not done the necessary legwork to find them/ it.  This is probably because as soon as I sat down to research the topic, I checked out Postsecret instead.  Which reminds me, it’s Monday and I haven’t read Sunday Secrets.  Be back in a few minutes.


I was talking with a friend recently who had more or less joined the world of Facebook so that he and his wife could share the link to their open-adoption blog.  They were eager to find an expectant mother who was creating an adoption plan and knew that it truly was a waiting game.  When an expectant mother found their site (through the agency or through their separate blog), it was up to her to choose them as parents for her child and to contact them first.  So every day they would check their inbox to see if maybe, just maybe, a pregnant woman had left a note.  I can only imagine the emotional cycles of hope and disappointment, expectation and surrender that they must have endured in those months.

I remember when my husband and I agreed that having a child would be okay with both of us; the first month after the agreement we didn’t conceive.  It was devastating in a childish way.  I knew it was unlikely, but I considered the possibility that I was infertile and proceeded to indulge in a bitter, imaginary, childless future.  Then I took a breath and knew that we could try again next month.

Sure it would be a few weeks before I was fertile again, and another few weeks before I would find out if I was pregnant, but I had a monthly timeline that distracted me from my day-to-day longing for a child. My friends didn’t have this as comfort, and their timeline became one day at a time.  They would share their open-adoption link on Facebook and would ask their friends to share it, too, because who knows where or how a birth mother would find them?  If all their friends, and all their friends’ friends mentioned their site in a post, well, it seemed that their odds increased exponentially.

I remember sharing that link as often as they did because it was one of the only things we, the friends, the real friends, could do.  I felt apologetic and embarrassed that my body had so easily become pregnant (we conceived the second month), and was reminded to be sensitive to the fact that the desperate itch to become a parent is not so always so easily scratched.


So I was talking with my friend one day about my new Facebook-created attention span, and he explained to me that he had some sort of software that tracked the details of the open adoption site.  He said that there was a very direct correlation between the peaks of visitation and the posts on Facebook, but he didn’t say this in an uplifting way.

“People see the link and check it out,” he said, “and then they look for a few seconds and they’re off to the next thing.”  He made a wave motion with his hand:  up and down.  For the first time, I understood, I mean really understood, the term “surfing” the web.  We see the link, we ride the wave, we crash down, and we move on.

Image: Surf via Shutterstock

I think MTV was the first to discover that the human brain is more engaged by quick, rapid video shots than it is by long, changeless shots, so perhaps there’s something hardwired in us to be ever on the lookout for the next stimulus.  I suppose if we’re living in the jungle, or wherever, we need to be alert to moving input.  That tiger we didn’t notice just ate us, and so on.  Facebook is perhaps merely the most recent brand name company to have cashed in on our instincts.  It’s not their fault, is it, that we humans notice change more readily than we notice not-change?


Because, I admit it, I DO love knowing which friends are eating homemade baba ganoush for lunch, and who’s in the ER with two sprained ankles after a visit to the trampoline gym, and how big my childhood friend’s child is getting.  I am merely cautious to let these whims go unchecked.  I am reluctant to fall victim to the surfing attention span unless I am actually on a surfboard riding an actual wave in the actual ocean.

Having never been on an actual surfboard in the actual ocean, I would assume that it wouldn’t be damaging to my attention span at all.  I imagine that I would feel simultaneous excitement and calm, thrill and peace.  Besides, from what I hear, surfing is its own addiction. I’d probably be surfing all day, making the ADD argument a moot point.

What’s more, I’m reluctant to fall victim to Facebook’s narration of my non-Facebook life.

I must NOT live my days as status updates.

Think what you will while you scrub the toilet, S, but exercise some discipline; save the punchlines for your standup career (???) or perhaps include them in larger works of storytelling. (How’s THAT for self-reflective?)  Or maybe it’s good enough to merely notice when it’s happening; recognize that I’d like to mention how proud of my 3 year old who is now reading the first six sounds taught in my FAVORITE literacy book (Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons), and decide whether this news warrants a public announcement on the ol’ FB.  Okay I thought about it and yes, yes it does.


Perhaps I should log onto Facebook only when I have signed a mental agreement with myself. Perhaps I should agree to only spend X amount of time on the site. (Ten minutes?  Twenty? Does uploading photos of my children count toward the total time allotment?)  Perhaps I should take Facebook vacations where I refrain from logging on for X days/weeks/decades.  Perhaps I should have rules about when I absolutely do not check the site (e.g. any time my children are... awake?).

In any case, I am now fully convinced that we need some sort of large-scale intervention.  For those of us who are not demonstrating the behaviors of an addict, well, clearly the three suggestions listed above are not for you.  But for the rest of us, surely there is SOME way we can loosen the Facebook tentacles from our real-time lives?

Who’s with me?

If you are, please click “like.”

QUACKBABY. Think a little.  Laugh a lot.

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