We are all showing signs of obsession, accessing our smartphones all day (and all night) due to a need to reduce our anxiety by constantly checking in with social media and electronic communications. This article examines how we relate to technology through consideration of nearly 30 years of research on the ‘psychology of technology’.
Describing an active research program, Dr. Rosen adopts the perspective that technology offers major opportunities but also provides negative impacts on our attention, health and brain functioning that can be overcome by learning how to reset our overloaded brains, as well as how to learn to increase our attention and decrease our constant self-interruption.
From ‘Computerphobia’ to ‘TechnoStress’
In 1984 I wanted to introduce computers into a psychology statistics course. On the first day I told the assembled 30 juniors and seniors that they were going to get a great opportunity to learn how to punch Hollerith cards, which would then be used to take the drudgery out of doing statistics by hand. The second day of class only 15 students remained. When I contacted the dropouts they all told me that they were afraid of computers and would rather take the class without having to use them. This started a nearly 30-year personal quest to investigate what I call the ‘psychology of technology’.
Beginning with studies of ‘computerphobia’ and then expanding to ‘technophobia’ in the late 1980s, when it was clear that people were also leery of other technologies, my colleagues and I realized that as technology permeated our society we were no longer seeing fearfulness, but rather that technology was causing people what we termed ‘TechnoStress’ and I published a book by that title in 1997. That book explored why we were all feeling stressed by our constant immersion in technology and featured chapters about how technology was impacting our work, our home life and our leisure time. Chapter 3 asked, ‘Where are the Boundaries in a Virtual World?’ while Chapter 5 cautioned that we were all ‘Running at Warp(ed) Speed’ due to our interactions with computers. The final chapter, entitled, ‘Our TechnoStressed Society’ highlighted the global problems including information overload, social isolation, privacy, viruses, and more global TechnoStressors.[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
I recently reread TechnoStress and found that most of what was put forth in that book paled in comparison to the way we react to technology today. I see students texting furiously during class and in one observational study of college and high school classes we found that nearly every student had some sort of device within arm’s reach and as much attention was being paid to the technology as was to the classroom material. But it is not just students who have become enmeshed and obsessed with technology. Corporate meetings feature devices spread around the conference table—and sometimes secreted in laps—and observations show that upwards of 90% of meeting attendees are splitting their attention between the meeting content and whatever is distracting them through their devices. Restaurant patrons place their smartphones on the table and react somewhat like Pavlov’s dogs to a vibration as it portends something that seems more important than interacting with their fellow diners. People standing in line no longer talk to each other. Instead, they click, read and post, paying attention to those who live in their virtual worlds while ignoring flesh-and-blood people standing right before them.
Smartphones: Technology Whatever, Wherever, Whenever
The game changer was the smartphone. It took our computer and placed it in our pocket or purse, offering us access to the brand new WWW: Whatever, Wherever, Whenever. And we love those three ‘W’s. We can answer any question with the press of a few fingers on a small screen. We most certainly use it wherever we want regardless of whether it is appropriate to do so. And we also use it whenever we want, operating our smartphone right up until we fall asleep and even checking our email when we awaken in the middle of the night.
The question that I have been studying now for the past five years is: ‘What does this constant obsession with our technology do for us and what does it do to us? On balance, is it good or bad?’ In August 2011 I gave a plenary address to the American Psychological Association entitled, ‘Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids’. In my talk I examined how generations of Americans have had their lives and values changed by technology, how younger generations now prefer to connect virtually rather than communicate face to face, how multitasking has become a badge of honour among younger generations in spite of data showing that we really can’t multitask, and how the rise of social media has been fuelled by the values and desires of the younger generations to be connected 24/7 to their ever-expanding virtual worlds.
Technology: The Five Myths and iDisorder
At the close of my talk I highlighted five myths about technology. Myth 1 asserted that technology means the same to everyone. In fact, according to research done in my lab, technology means different things to different generations. For example Facebook reflects a computer activity similar to being online, sending e-mail and working on the computer to a Baby Boomer while it means a communication tool similar to texting and phone calling to a Gen Xer (born between 1965 and 1979), or someone from the Net Generation (born in the 1980s) or the iGeneration (born in the 1990s). However, when you look at the young members of Generation ‘C’ named for their constant connection and born in the new millennium, they see Facebook as the same as any technology activity. It is simply all technology to them. And it is not a ‘tool’ to attain a goal. It is just there and part of their lives. They were born into a world with ‘i’ devices and many of them clicked their first icon before they could walk or talk.
Myth 2 was negated by the findings that social media is not just for American kids but is actually used as much by adults and is even more popular outside the US than inside. Myth 3 highlighted two studies showing that use of particular technologies can lead to poor health or, as I called it in a recent book, an iDisorder. Children who used technology more showed poorer physical, behavioural and psychological health. Preteens and teenagers who used more media and, in particular, those who played more video games showed poorer health and those teenagers who spent more hours online also suffered health problems. In a study of adults, we found that using Facebook more in general and for impression management predicted more symptoms of a variety of psychological disorders including depression, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, and obsessions. Interestingly, having more Facebook friends—as well as using the telephone more often—predicted fewer symptoms of depression but more symptoms of mania, one-half of bipolar disorder.
Myth 4 presented a study showing that people are able to dispense ‘virtual’ empathy—the ability to recognize emotions that are being expressed online by another person—although that form of empathy does not feel as supportive as ‘real-world’ empathy delivered face to face.
Multitasking and Performance
Finally, Myth 5 suggested that Facebook makes you multitask, which is bad for you. This one was a bit more complicated as it is part myth and part reality. In support, I offered one study from my own lab and research from other labs that indicated that while attempting to multitask is prevalent, particularly among younger generations, it is more efficient to do each task separately to completion than to interleaf two tasks at the same time. From our lab I mentioned a study where we observed middle school, high school and college students studying in their home environment for 15 minutes and found that even though they knew we were watching them they averaged less than 6 of those minutes actually studying and switched every 3 to 5 minutes. The culprits that encouraged task switching included social media and texting as well as an overall feeling that task switching was not detrimental to performance. Research from other labs supported this work. For example, Dr. Reynol Junco found that those college students who updated their Facebook status more often had lower grade point averages while Dr. Eileen Wood and her colleagues found that students who used Facebook (or instant messaging) during lectures did worse on exams than those who did not use technology during class.
The Impact of Technology on Our Brains
Overall, I think that it is clear that technology, particularly social communication technologies including social media, texting, e-mail, instant messaging, telephone calling and online video gaming has both positive and negative impacts on people. The problem is how we are dealing with the technology. That defines the paradigm in which my research has moved in the past few years and will continue to move into the next decade.
There are two critical questions that we need to address. First, why are people so obsessed with technology to the point where the typical teenager or young adult checks his or her smartphone every 15 minutes or less and, if not allowed to do so, gets highly anxious often to the extent that the person will surreptitiously check in by glancing at their smartphone under a desk or table or even excusing oneself to go to the restroom with the intent of checking that omnipresent box for updates? Second, what is this constant obsession doing to our brains?
In service of the first issue let me describe a study that my colleague Dr. Nancy Cheever performed recently. Dr. Cheever brought groups of students into a lecture hall with the admonition that they were not allowed to talk, look at books or other materials or check their technology. They were just allowed to sit and wait for further instructions. Half the students were told to silence their phone and put it under their desk while the other half had their phone taken in exchange for a claim ticket. Every 20 minutes for an hour, Dr. Cheever asked students to complete a standard state anxiety inventory. Over the first 20 minutes, both groups showed an increase in anxiety, although those who gave up their phones showed a larger increase. Following that, the anxiety scores of the students with their phones under their desks leveled off while the anxiety scores of the students who gave up their phones skyrocketed. When Dr. Cheever partitioned students into heavy and light cell phone users it became clear that the dramatic rise in anxiety was primarily due to heavy users.
The second issue is trickier. By now we are all getting used to seeing dramatic glossy photographs of brain scans with areas of activation highlighted in reds, oranges, and yellows. We have been told that neuroscience is going to answer all our questions and in service of this we are seeing articles that tells us how neuroscience has ‘proven’ that the brains of Apple product lovers activate the same areas when they are thinking about their iPad or iPhone as the brains of religious people, concluding that Apple lovers have a religious experience with their devices. Other examples of what has been dubbed ‘neuro-mapping’ or, more derisively, ‘brain porn’, include studies asserting that by simply watching the brain ‘light up’ you can tell what someone will buy, their political leanings, whether they are telling the truth, and whether they have a psychiatric disorder. The problem is that our brain regions serve many functions. For example, neuroscientists often study emotional reactions by looking at activation in the amygdala. The problem is that the amygdala controls a variety of emotional states including happiness, anger, and fear and even reacts strongly to novel stimuli of any kind. So while a study might assert that video gaming is addictive because it activates the amygdala, it may be that this activation occurs for a variety of reasons including the novelty of playing a game for the first time.
New Approaches to Brain Scanning
My approach is different. I am not scanning someone’s brain using standard fMRI tools while subjects lie immobile in a tube without being able to use any technology (an fMRI machine uses magnets to determine brain activation and nothing metal may be in the room) and producing brightly colored photos of brain activation. Instead, I am concerned more with what is happening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the area directly behind the forehead—where researchers have studied and identified areas involved in attention, working memory, impulsivity, decision making and even multitasking. My goal is to see whether technology is disrupting our attention and our ability to work on a mental problem and, if so, which part of the prefrontal cortex shows this decrement. I can scan the brain using a technology called near infrared spectroscopy and a device called an fNIR, where the wearer has freedom of movement and since the technology does not use magnets they can use technology as they would do in their home or office of anyone as they perform a task.
What can we learn from fNIR brain scanning? We can learn how you process information in your working memory and when that working memory gets overloaded. We can learn what happens to your attention (and perhaps your impulsivity) when your phone vibrates in your pocket and you are not allowed to answer. We can learn what happens when you decide to switch to another task instead of completing one task and how long your brain takes to resume that task upon your return. The best gift that the fNIR offers is its ability to be used in any setting at any time by most anyone. For example, researchers at the CONQUER Lab at Drexel University studied novice and experienced air-traffic controllers and were able to distinguish between them by simply looking at the activity in the working memory areas of the prefrontal cortex. This research suggests that we can tell when an air-traffic controller trainee is ready to handle the high workload of monitoring many planes at the same time by simply scanning their brains.
The ‘Psychology of Technology’ and Organisations
How does the ‘psychology of technology’ impact organisations? The bottom line is that workers are obsessed with their smartphones and are not able to attend without being distracted. Whether the distraction is external such as a vibrating phone or internal such as a need to check in with social media, it is still interfering with work and job performance. In my book iDisorder I suggested that paying attention to our brains and what happens when we are constantly immersed in technology would help us regain our emotional and physical health and stop the obsession. My first suggestion is that every 90 minutes to two hours you take a ‘brain break’ and do something that neuroscientists have identified as calming the brain. Take a 10-minute walk in nature and your brain will be calm. The same happens when you meditate, exercise, listen to music, practice a foreign language, laugh, or even take a hot shower.
My second suggestion for brain health is to train our brains to not be obsessed and constantly need to check in with our technology. ‘Technology breaks’ can help achieve this goal. In a meeting, for example, allow everyone to check in for 1 minute and then put their devices on silent and upside down in front of them with one person setting a timer for 15 minutes. Putting your device in plain sight is critical as it sends a signal to your brain to not get anxious, as you will get to check in within 15 minutes. When the alarm rings, everyone checks their device for 1 minute and repeats the process. After a few days increase the time to 20, 25 and even up to 30 minutes to train your brain that you are not missing out if you only check in every 30 minutes. I am using this in boardrooms, classrooms, restaurants, and family dinner tables with great success.
The bottom line is that we need to understand how our brains function and why technology is so distracting. More important, we need to regain our ability to attend for extended periods of time and we need to practice ‘resetting’ our brains from the overload that technology use brings. If we can do those two simple jobs we can take the best from technology and keep ourselves healthy and productive.
About the Author
Dr. Larry Rosen is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His research in the ‘psychology of technology’ includes: multitasking, social networking, generational differences, parenting, child and adolescent development, and educational psychology, and he has authored five books including iDisorder (2012), Rewired (2010), and Me, MySpace and I (2007).