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By petra - Posted on 15 May 2013


Everyone is crazy busy. Most of us are too busy even to fully attend to the things that are important to us. As parents we are prioritizing, all day every day; making sure that our kids rise to the top of the list often enough that they come to no harm. Maybe, hopefully, they even thrive.

When there are a bazillion things vying for your notice, what gets your attention?

Someone once said to me “either your kids are at the centre of your life, or they aren’t”. Pretty simple, but for some reason it stuck with me. Sometimes when I am besieged with demands for my attention, I remember those words, and I get clear. My kids are at the centre of my life. And what that really means is that they are at the centre of my attention. Not that I’m their slave. I’m not helicoptering, or letting them run my life, or catering to their whims, but I am paying attention to what I feel they need, and then I am giving attention to those things.

Here’s an interesting thing about attention. We can decide where we put it. Ultimately, deciding where to put your attention is the basis for goal achievement and the foundation for most spiritual practice. We can be intentional about where we put our attention.

Okay, yes, being intentional is all good but, truth is, we live in the real world and the virtual world of social media.

People refer to the information available through social media as ‘the fire hose’, because it is like a tsunami that will flatten you unless you find a way to protect yourself. How much of your attention is being consumed by social media? It’s a worthwhile question because, after all, information consumes attention.

And it is important to know that there are forces out there that are actively working to steal your attention. Here at Young Parents Support Network, we aren’t anti-social-media. We have an active facebook page (check us out!, we’re on twitter & pinterest, and last week I attended Social Media Camp and LOVED it. As an organization, we see the value of social media for connecting & networking. But facebook is called ‘crackbook’ for a reason. How often, when we have spare time (or even if we don’t), do we find ourselves just hanging out online, trolling the newsfeed, one thing leading to another, giving a huge slice of our daily attention to… um, what exactly?

But we can’t simply dismiss the value of giving attention to social media. Studies have shown that posting on facebook made lonely people feel less lonely even if no one replied, because they felt relationally connected just knowing their post has been seen. Studies have also shown that people who are experiencing emotional instability are more likely to post self-referencing posts with emotional content and that doing so helps to repair their sense of well-being. Others have referred to social media as being ‘dopamine-heavy’. Dopamine activates our brain’s pleasure centers. There’s a growing mass of scientific research that affirms what lots of people already know: giving attention to social media can be therapeutic.

It’s hard to measure attention, especially when our attention is so divided. One super-rough way to measure it is simply through time spent. How much time we spend doing something can semi-correlate to how much attention we give to that thing. But sophisticated new technologies are being developed to accurately measure our attention and to analyze it.

Old-fashioned marketing (like TV commercials) were designed to get you to buy stuff. The ad would come on, you may or may not get up to pee while it played, you may or may not buy the stuff it advertised, and marketers had no way of knowing whether you, as an individual, saw their ad or talked about it or acted on it. New-fashioned marketing is acutely interested in your attention. It tracks keywords in your e-mail, posts & tweets; traces your habits & interests; works with facial recognition software to determine how you are reacting to different content; works to influence the people who influence you, and then it compiles data to develop & tweak products designed for ‘people like you’ and customizes advertising specifically to you. Then it tracks your behaviour to see how you respond and repeats the process.

It’s creepy.

But true. I learned all about it at Social Media Camp.

Which brings me back to thinking about attention. And the fact that we get to decide where we put it. Even if we aren’t actively deciding, but are just being lulled into a dopamine-heavy haze on crackbook, we still have a choice.

Social Media is completely entwined with the 21st century problem some people call ‘attention poverty’. It splinters our already fragmented attention. But it also teaches us to multi-task. It can help us feel more connected. It can make us feel good. It’s an incredible time-sucker. It also is being used in increasing sophisticated ways for marketing purposes. It would be safe to say that our relationship with Social Media is ‘complicated’. But no matter how forceful the fire hose that is the Social Media data stream, we still get to decide where we put our attention. As a parent, my kids are at the centre of my attention. Which means that of course I’m on facebook. Because that’s where they are, too.

Thanks to Adrian J. Ebsary (@AJEbsary) for his Social Media Camp presentation “Applying research into Attention Economics” which provoked a lot of thinking and this post. And for introducing me to the word ‘eudemonic’ which (I now know) means ‘producing happiness and well-being’.