Why Our Attention is Precious and Powerful

In her first article, Lily Colon, a member of the LOG OFF writers group, details her struggle to disconnect from Tik Tok and the rejuvenating power of unplugging. Growing up in New York City, much like other large cities, I am used to being exposed to countless ads on a daily basis. They are everywhere, creeping their way into our minds and our conversations. We memorize the tunes and jingles of commercials and sing them on our way to school, while we wait on a line for our food, while we shop for groceries, while we buy clothes. Advertisements have an intense impact on young people because advertisers view us as the consumers of the future. We are being raised in a consumer culture and with the rapid development of technology and social media, advertisers have figured out that the best means to communicate with their young audience is through social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. They spend millions of dollars ensuring that our attention is captured by the vast array of advertisements.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit New York, I was in my senior year of high school. I had no desire to be in class and online school made it easy to disengage and go onto my phone. It was during this time that I became addicted to TikTok. The app centers around a For You page that exposes viewers to all types of videos and content. The algorithm on the app is so specific that the videos on each person’s For You pages are chosen based on videos they’ve liked, saved, and sent. Since there are constantly new videos that pop up on our For You pages, users are able to scroll endlessly as the day passes them by.


My problem with the app wasn’t so much with the content that I was watching. I found it amazing that some extremely funny and creative people were getting so much exposure on the app and I loved watching the videos. I would like hundreds of videos and send them to my friends. I would favorite other videos, watch them later and laugh. I didn’t find it strange that my For You page began to direct certain types of videos that related to videos I had liked previously. I didn’t question the fact that the time wasn’t visible when I would scroll through the endless stream of videos.


My first problem was my own addiction to the app, which was but a symptom of my addiction to my phone. When I first downloaded the app, I would spend hours upon hours on the app. It became my comfort. The pandemic had given me a reason to stay inside and TikTok gave me a reason to stay in my bed. It became so bad that my screen time went up to 9 hours at one point. My phone became the first thing I looked at in the morning and TikTok would be the first app that I would click on. Like, save, favorite, comment, send. It was as though I was in my own version of ground hog day and I couldn’t get out.


My other problem with the app was the abundance of advertisements that would pop up constantly. The minute the app is opened, an ad flashes on the screen. Video after video of creators advertising their viewers to buy some random product. A product that the viewer most likely did not need. The influence of advertisements in our life is vast, as they can impact decisions and actions that we make throughout the day. I would fall into the trap and click onto an account that sold a special pair of jeans, despite my declaration to myself earlier in the morning that I wanted to save money. At the end of the day, the business model of advertisers is to capture as much of our attention as they can, and they are succeeding. This constant stream of ads results in endless distractions for us. There is virtually no place to find refuge from advertisements, which leaves us little time to spend on things that actually matter to us. Eventually, I began to forget what I was really interested in, what really mattered to me and my mental health began to suffer.


I realized that I needed to do something when I returned home from college in the winter. Soon after returning home, I had one week to finish an important final. I promised myself that I would go to sleep early and limit my time on my phone. I really tried to. But then I decided it wouldn’t hurt to watch one TikTok before sleep. When I snapped out of my mindless scrolling, I realized it was three in the morning. I promised I wouldn’t do it again. And it happened almost every night of the week. I ended up cramming the final and experienced an insane amount of stress that could have been avoided. This was an eye-opening moment for me because I was confronted with the fact that I had lost control of my attention. I began to realize that I was wasting my time and I was getting angry at myself for having abandoned my interests. I was isolating myself from my family and from my own ambitions. I was slowly coming to realize we have the power to protect our attention. The week after the stress of my final, I decided to delete TikTok.


I had never realized how important our attention was until this year, when I enrolled in a sociology class at my university. We studied The Attention Merchants , an illuminating book by the scholar Tim Wu, which outlines process by which corporations harvest our attention and sell it to advertisers. As Tim Wu highlights our attention is precious and valuable. You have the power to put your attention on your interests, not in the interests of a corporation.


I am still very much attached to my phone. I can still spend a few hours scrolling through Instagram or swiping through stories on Snapchat. I am still learning. I was raised in this consumer culture and I was raised to consume, consume, consume. It will take a while for me to unlearn but I am learning. I have gone back to reading, which was something I used to love when I was in middle school. I have begun to walk in the park near my house practically every day, appreciating the beauty, the smells, and the sounds. I have begun to dance and exercise. I have gone back to practicing guitar, singing, and writing. I have spent even more time with my parents and family, appreciating their company and love. I have realized the power my attention holds and made the bold move to reclaim it.



Resources-

Wu , Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads , 2016. Print.

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