by Pete Mazzaccaro

Ask nearly anyone today what they think of the time they spend on a smartphone and they’ll likely tell you they think it’s far too much. If you’re lucky, they’ll look up from reading their Facebook feed when they speak to you.

Moreover, we continue to be worried a lot about how much that inability to pay attention is affecting our kids.

At La Salle University, where I continue to teach a class every semester, I never cease to be surprised to find rows of students walking from class to class while texting – their phone in one hand, thumb tapping away, head dipping dangerously close to 90 degrees. Somehow they are able to pilot themselves along the campus paths and through doors.

The result is a world in which most of us are convinced that all of us – especially the young – are unable to pay attention to anything. We’re too busy dividing our time between the real world and the virtual.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham noted the popular feeling among most Americans, citing a 2012 Pew study in which 90 percent of teachers said they felt students are not capable of focusing on the same materials they could in years past.

I hear similar things in the halls of La Salle and beyond, where educators grapple with just how much they should lower their expectations. Should I assign 200 pages of reading a week? 100? Or maybe 50 is the most I can ask for.

Willingham suggests, however, that studies of human attention spans show that we’re not really losing some innate ability to focus. Smartphones are definitely distracting, but they’re not rewiring our brains. We’re simply choosing to be distracted, forgoing deeper periods of concentration. Willingham says that people today perform as well on tests of attention span as they did 50 years ago.

“Digital devices are not eating away at our brains,” he writes. “They are, however, luring us toward near constant outwardly directed thought, a situation that’s probably unique in human experience.”

Outward thought is paying attention to something else. It’s the opposite of sitting still and thinking. Note the next time you find yourself in a waiting room at the dentist or even in line to buy movie tickets. Most people around you will be engaged in outward thought – the target of their concentration that 4 to 6 inch screen in the palm of their hands.

In some ways, the fact that we’re choosing to behave this way is not all that entirely encouraging. We’re escaping ourselves and those around us – resisting needs to figure out problems or contemplate solutions and burying our heads in news feeds, viral videos and texts.

If distraction is indeed a choice, however, it means it should be well within our power to change our habits, or at least to control them. We can’t shrug our shoulders in the knowledge that our data-fried brains are now beyond repair. If we need to focus, we can do so.

It may, however, take some practice. Try to leave the phone in your pocket the next time you’re waiting for that dentist or that oil change. Actually watch your kids as they play soccer and baseball. If you fail to do so, it’s no one’s fault but your own.