Bids for attention …

Past connection devices (Provided photo — Melinda Walton)

Mom, Mom, MOm, MOM, MOOOOOM! Just like a toddler wanting attention, our little screens are beeping, booping, chirping, pinging, ringing and singing for our attention all the time. Day and night if we let them. It is incessant.

Our attention is a valuable commodity. Enough so that most media we consume via our phones is specifically designed to get, and keep, our attention. If you watched the Netflix movie “The Social Dilemma,” you’re aware of how keenly they desire it — features are purposely made to encourage addiction. And not innocently. The movie “Snowden” is eye opening. The goal is engagement, your information, your attention and continued scrolling. Stimulus-response. Like Pavlov’s drooling dog, we hear the stimulus, “ping,” and our response: We automatically look at our phone. Regardless of where we are, in a Zoom meeting, at work, class — online or not, talking with a friend, at the gym in the middle of a set … we stop, and look at our phone.

It was November or December when I decided to take my somewhat annual Facebook hiatus. I’d had enough of the mindless, addictive, scrolling that siphons more time than intended. There are so many holiday things vying for attention. This time, I just uninstalled Facebook from my phone. I wanted to make my use of Facebook more intentional by having to go on my computer to assuage my FOMO … Fear Of Missing Out. Sure, I reinstalled the app once — OK, several times — over the next few weeks, “just so I can post this picture …” But I uninstalled it right after. Um … within an hour, or at least by the end of the day! I gradually got used to ignoring the urge to “just check” Facebook, and it got easier having it off my phone.

We join to be more “connected” with friends and family. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and others. There are so many ways to connect, and yet how connected are we really? If your car’s battery died, which Facebook friend would you contact? Or Snapchat? When you’re feeling lonely, embarrassed, dejected, do you post? What would you say? Whom do you message or text? Are these social media friends going to be there for us in any meaningful way? Of the 100, 300 or 1,200-plus “friends,” how many would you actually phone if you need to cry over something?

Social media doesn’t feel as social anymore. It isn’t really about connection, not real connection. It often feels antisocial. So much filtering, posturing, posing, shouting into the void, about as effective as spitting into the wind. There’s a line in an old Lucinda Williams song about a junebug versus a hurricane. Social media is the hurricane, we are junebugs, just letting ourselves be blown about wherever the hurricane is headed, whether we want to go that way or not.

To be more “in the moment” — you know, to actually pay attention to the people right in front of me — I began turning off notification sounds and most screen notifications, too. I no longer wanted my phone telling me when to look at it. “I’ll check my email when I want to check my email,” I thought to myself. I did leave the ping of texts on. The pandemic has whittled down the number of people who actually text me with any regularity, so those pings weren’t frequent enough to annoy. But I did change the ping sound recently to the sound of a meditation bowl. Still a sound, but one that is a calm alert.

Months into my scaling back from giving my attention away to needy, greedy social media, I missed a time-critical email, so I changed screen notifications to “on” for email — but kept it silent. Why? Well, what’s more important than conversations we have real time, in person? If we look away — at our phone, what does that say to our child, co-worker, friend? It says they are not as important as whatever random thing might be on our little screen.

Maybe we ignore that first ping, leaving the phone in our pocket, or face-down on the table where we self-importantly placed it. Then, a second ping. We force ourselves not to check it. Must. Not. Look. But our attention is broken; we are no longer in the moment with our friend or conversation or project … or the road. “Who’s texting me, twice in a row?” Now we wonder which friend generally texts in fragments, or do I have TWO different people texting? “Ping!” A third text! What could be going on?! Maybe someone needs me! “I’m sorry, I should check this. It might be important,” we lamely say to our friend. So, of course, they get their phone out, too, in self-defense, so as not to look unimportant in their own right, since you’ve essentially just implied someone else is more important than they are to you at this moment.

Who are your “I would completely ignore my phone when with them” people? Who are your “I would interrupt any conversation to read their text” people? It’s hard to construct a hierarchy. Special ringtones can be set for special calls; for example, a friend of mine uses the Star Wars “Imperial Death March” for work. Different sounds can differentiate text from email, Messenger, Signal or other app notifications, but they are all tiny stressors. Bids for our attention. I read of a therapist who had conducted studies on relationships based on how each person in the relationship dealt with the other’s bids for attention. The therapist could predict whether the relationship would last or end in divorce from just one observation.

Who do you care about enough to not only ignore your phone but to silence it? Who cares enough about you that, as far as you can tell, they don’t even have their phone when they are with you? Shouldn’t we offer that level of attention to every single person we speak with? The pandemic caused us to isolate ourselves physically from each other for so long, let’s not make each other feel lonely when we are finally together!


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