In the way we talk about the Internet it is apparent we recognize how it can draw us in. We say we “surf” the web, talking as if we were caught up in a wave that we can’t get out of. Given the studies showing the potential for it to be incredibly distracting, it is safe to say there is some truth to this popular image. After all, we are constantly fed a variety of ads and notifications, each sending us further down a loop that can eat up much of the available time in the day. It has become important to take a step back and develop ways to spend internet time responsibly.
Now that more and more people are conducting their everyday business online, we have to remind ourselves of how the internet can be used as a tool. The internet was, after all, developed to be useful. Though the idea of accessing the entire world’s knowledge at our fingertips is romanticized, the fact of the matter is that it lets us find information faster than ever before. We can use this resource to research more efficiently, communicate more efficiently, even study more efficiently using some of the many annotation or flash card tools that are available as web applications.
This high capacity for usefulness disguises a high capacity for distraction. Just as it enables us to read world news from our couch, it also enables us to watch ten seasons of a current television show from that same couch. The sheer number of options available online can encourage people to select the most familiar and immediately gratifying. This is illustrated by the fact that of the top twenty most frequently-used websites, four – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – are notorious time-wasters that give users many opportunities to get drawn in.
Distraction isn’t just a product of the options available. The way these options are presented to us contributes greatly to the excessive way the internet is being used. YouTube recommends videos, encouraging users to seamlessly go from one to the next. Facebook perpetually adjusts your newsfeed every time you go there and tailors it to fit your interests. Even advertising is now increasingly based on data, targeted specifically at each individual user based on previous searches.
The personally tailored nature of our web experience is likely to amplify the risk of attention loss. When ads become “smarter” and learn what you like, they’re all the more likely to be successful in directing you towards something besides where you intended to go. In fact, most popular websites are directing your attention in some way, either by providing suggestions or highlighting popular features. Though it seems like the internet is just a bunch of opportunities, those opportunities are being presented to you in a way that is meant to steer you in a certain direction.
I don’t mean to blame these websites for irresponsible internet use, I think these websites simply makes responsibility all the more important. Now that the internet has become such a large facet in most of our lives, we have to actually work to promote responsible habits. Our ideas about “responsible use” should be applied to the internet as much as to other things that have the potential to lead us away from what we should be doing. While many American parents rightly teach about the problems with too much TV, the reality is that the internet is just as gnarly a time-waster. On the internet, the time-wasting is often a click away from the work that must be done.
Perhaps the most powerful methods for reducing distraction on the internet come from the internet itself. Savvy app developers are now developing tools to manage website use, some of which can be added as an extension to a web browser. From temporarily blocking time-wasting websites to helping manage tasks, these apps can allow the internet to become an even better way to get things done. The internet provides us with more ways to complete our work than ever before; we just have to make the most out of them.