May I Have Your Attention Please?

Dr. Purushothaman
October 2, 2013

The other day, as I waited for the elevator in my office building, I noticed a young mother sitting on the bench in the lobby. Her tiny baby was snuggled in a baby carrier on the floor and her two year old girl was busy trying to get on the elevator with me. The mom was hunched over, phone in hand, text messaging or emailing, or whatever else she might have been doing from her phone. Meanwhile, she essentially ignored her two kids. They may as well have been invisible to her as she was completely focused on her phone. She didn't even notice me talking to her two year old trying to make sure she didn't get on the elevator with me.

I felt a deep disquiet as I rode up the elevator.

This was not the first time I had noticed a phone, personal digital assistant (PDA), or iPod interfering with someone's ability to pay attention to their family. Several months before my father died we traveled to Florida to visit family. We all went out to dinner and my beautiful great-niece spent the entire dinner listening to music on her earbuds, and playing a game on her hand held electronic gadget. I'm not even sure if it was an iPod or phone or what. This was the last time she saw her great grandfather before he passed on. But she paid no attention to him or the conversation around her. Although many kids her age do the same thing, I can't help but think she missed something really important.

I often have clients (teens and adults) who are reading emails or text messaging on their Blackberry during therapy sessions. It is often a challenge to gain their attention. As soon as a text message arrives they focus their whole attention on it. I might as well not be there.

I have a theory that we learn to pay attention when we are paid attention to. Think how good it feels when your have someone's undivided attention. You feel heard, visible, and important. Your brain learns to concentrate much more easily when someone is totally focused on listening to you.

But think about how you feel when you are trying to talk to someone who is distracted, not totally focused on what you are saying. I don't know about you, but I find this very distracting and I have a hard time keeping my train of thought. When they don't pay attention it's hard for me to pay attention.

Attachment theory teaches that if we do not attach to our primary caregiver as infants, we will have life long consequences in our ability to engage in healthy relationships with others and many other negative results in our ability to regulate our brain. Phones, iPods, Blackberry's, PDA's are taking our attention away from those people right in front of us, including our kids. I worry that our kids may not connect and attach well enough to be able to concentrate and pay attention to others in their lives or to tasks they must accomplish. This will have disastrous effects on their ability to love, connect, learn, and regulate their emotion.

I know how wonderful a Blackberry can be. It not only keeps us in touch by phone, but also by text messaging, and email. It may have GPS available to help us navigate when driving. It provides instant access to the internet, anywhere, anytime. Last summer I had the privilege of finding a day to go to the beach with my 23 year old daughter. We talked, sunned, and swam. But then I noticed she was focused on her Blackberry. I asked her what she was doing and she answered that she was ordering a new bathing suit, right from her beach chair in the sand. Awesome!

Parents who spend much of the day talking on the cell phone, texting, or emailing are not present for their children while doing so. And those who are surfing the internet or checking their email at dinner are not emotionally available to the people they are with. I had dinner at a restaurant with two teens and their mom and dad. Dad spent the entire dinner playing with his Blackberry. As far as any interaction with his kids was concerned he may as well have stayed home. The kids missed out on having his undivided attention to tell him about their day, their life, their opinions, their plans, etc. I know they also missed out on the opportunity to learn what it means to really concentrate and pay attention.

We need to learn to set better limits on when and where we use these new and wonderful advances in technology so that they do not interfere with interpersonal relationships and our ability to pay attention. I fully understand the positive potential to stay in touch with our network of family in friends electronically. But we much use caution to remember to give our undivided attention to the people we are with.

Take heed. It is essential to the brain development of our children and the future of our species.

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