On Distracting Ourselves

Calling While DivingThis past week the Wall Street Journal carried a sobering article about the increase in childhood accidents, and the possibility that they might be related to the supervising adult being distracted by hand-held electronic devices—be it a parent, sitter, or designated supervising personnel.

Up until 2007, there had been a steady decrease in childhood accidents, thanks to more sophisticated safeguards (such as higher quality playground equipment). Since then, there has been a turnaround in the statistics, and the number of reported accidents in what is commonly viewed as supervised time has now increased. For example, swimming pool injuries for children under 5 have increased 36% from 2007 to 2011.

The article’s author, Ben Worthen, drew upon the views of many physicians and children’s supervisors to suggest that there may be a connection between the rise in these accidents and parental or adult inattention. As one supervisor at an indoor recreation facility in Houston reported, “People bring their kids in, turn their backs, and turn on their phones.”

It is important to note that there is no statistical relationship yet established between childhood accidents and inattention on the part of parents or other adults, as there now is between texting and driving an automobile. Similarly, playing to the fears of parents regarding their children’s safety is a common journalistic habit these days.

Still, the article does point to a larger issue, perhaps one that we may just be beginning to come to terms with in a culture so enthralled (yours truly included among these) with the electronic options that are increasingly open to us. That issue I would call the “distractibility factor,” namely, the degree to which our culture—due to several factors, not just hand-held devices—seems to feel an irresistible pull toward distraction.

Ned Hallowell, known to many independent school people for his writing and consulting, refers to it as Gemmelsmerch, a word he invented that is intended to describe the forces that distract us from what we are doing, forces he claims have a power akin to that of gravitational pull. While he has written extensively and compassionately about medically diagnosed forms of ADD/ADHD, he also identifies a more generalized, culturally and environmentally induced form of inattention. Gemmelsmerch, he explains, is a “severe case of modern life.”

I hear many school people speak of how they encourage parents to set aside their handheld devices in the presence of their children. That is a courageous thing to do, given how unwelcome such advice might be. Others refer to parent conferences where mobile devices are ringing and serve—whether answered or not—as powerful pulls away from the topic at hand, the child in question and his or her work in school. These distractions may be annoying to some school people, heartbreaking for others when seen with increasing frequency and accompanied by the obvious stress it can create for parents.

All of us know that stress, that pull, and the distraction these moments can create for us. To be sure, some in our culture pride themselves on the many ways they are able to keep a lot of things going at once. Multitasking is, for some, a source of genuine pride and a skill necessitated by the demands of modern life. But, as one physician in the Wall Street Journal article observed, “We think we’re multitasking and not really feeling like we are truly distracted. But in reality we are.”

At a meeting of new school heads of the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools a few weeks ago, the Rev. Scott Brown, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Harlingen, Texas challenged all of us to think about both the challenges we face in trying to be attentive, as well as the value the activity of attention still holds in educating young people. He encouraged us to take a more skeptical view of multitasking (a courageous thing to do, given how school heads have to be quintessential multitaskers in their schools), and he asked the question of all of us: “What would others say it is like to work with you?” Would they have trouble with our lack of focus, or constant tendency to be distracted?

As I thought about his presentation, I felt that this is among the most important of discussions we should be having in our schools. Not that we should be turning our backs on technology, but that we should begin thinking about the implications and unintended consequences of our tendency to be distracted, and what impact it is having on those in our school communities. 

Fortunately, Episcopal schools still are places where the pace of school life is routinely interrupted, where there is an opportunity to focus on and attend to the longings of the heart and soul. If anyone should be having the conversation that Fr. Brown led us in, it should be those of us who lead or minister in Episcopal schools.

Over a half century ago, the famous Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel both prophesied about the challenges we now face in a distracted and frantic world, as well as reminded us of what resources we had in our faith tradition that would help us find hope in the midst of a culture where we often feel we have no choice but to jump in and ride the inattention tide. “The solution of humankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it.”

We do that, I suspect, by finding something even more lasting and worthy of our attention than what is constantly pulling at us. We may find not only that we have more control over our lives and are more attentive to our children and students, but that we just might make better and more fulfilling use of the technology we are blessed to experience and utilize each day.