Have you ever wondered why it is that many children can play video games for hours on end, but they can’t seem to concentrate or focus at school even for a minute? Seemingly they’re capable of concentrating on tasks when they want to… so does that mean that they’re failing to concentrate at school on purpose? Could they be paying attention if they wanted to?

When trying to understand what’s happening here, it’s important to think not just about the focus or concentration that children are demonstrating, but also about what’s generating that concentration.

Selling your Attention

The gaming industry makes billions of dollars every year by buying children’s and adults’ attention. Game designers are so good at this that they have caused people to die of dehydration or heart failure while immersed in a game. Time seems to stand still, the game feels so important, and the game designer has so successfully claimed their full attention that there is none left to attend to their bodies’ physical needs.

Claiming, or buying, your attention is what game designers actively set out to do. They first tempt the player to start playing, and then they continuously tempt him or her to continue playing. Huge amounts of money have been spent on research into how this is done, and the result is powerful.

So a very important thing to realise is that when a child plays a video game, he or she isn’t choosingto concentrate. It’s more accurate to say that they are forcedto concentrate. Everything about the game is designed to control and manipulate the player so that they keep playing.

Incidentally, the same research is used by social media sites and many apps that we use daily – which is why screen time is increasing for all ages groups every year.

Engaging your Will

The alternative to ‘selling’ your attention, whether to a game or to Twitter, is to actively give your attention – to choose to engage your will. When we engage our will, we are rewarded with a sense of progress and achievement, peace of mind and a sense of belonging, and a sense that we matter. Engaging our will is at the core of what it is to be human, and it is also at the root of becoming the best version of ourselves that we’re capable of becoming.

You know you’re exerting your will when you have to put effort into starting – when your mind tells you that you want to do it, but nonetheless there is an inertia which it takes effort to overcome. The inertia might come from knowing that the effort will have to be put in again and again – there will be more homework next week, dinner will need to be cooked again, the grass will need cutting again. Or it might come from a sense that the challenge is huge and our efforts seem small – the enthusiasm to learn an instrument wanes when we pick it up for the first time and find that even learning to make a sound is going to take weeks.

Owning Your Attention

But as we all know, small steps can be transformative and add up to huge achievements – as long as we persist. In this modern world it is getting harder and harder to avoid distraction and focus on what really matters, and it takes a tremendous effort of will for both children and adults to claim our attention as our own and use it on things we really wantto pay attention to.

As parents there is perhaps nothing more important than teaching your children how to be in control of their own attention. Without the willpower to control their attention, they are at the mercy of external influences. With it, they are the masters of their own destinies.

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