Digital addiction

CartoonFrom: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-without-cellphone-waseem-abbas/

I felt dismissed and slighted when in the middle of dinner, my friend picked up his phone and quickly glanced at the notification.  The message appeared more important than me.

I had accidentally left my phone at home and the whole day long, I kept reaching for it to check email and social media feeds-I felt emotionally lost.

The host at the dinner party asked us to turn our phone off or leave it at the door.  At first I felt the impulse to check my phone, but during the evening I really connected with the other people.  

As I was running on the trail behind UC Berkeley enjoying the expansive view of the San Francisco Bay, an other idea for this article popped into my head–the importance of taking time to reflect and allow neural regeneration. I rushed back to add those concepts to the article.

When observing university students sitting in the classroom, I see them alone with their heads down looking at their mobile phone. When students enter a classroom, during class breaks, or after class they are continually texting, scrolling, clicking or looking at their smartphone screen instead of engaging with people next to them.  The same habits exist outside the classroom, whether they are leaning against the walls in the hallways, walking between classes, eating pizzas, or standing on the bus, the iNeck posture has become the all too common body position.

We respond automatically to notifications from email, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.  Each notification feels so important that we interrupt what we are doing and look at the screen.  The notifications activate neurological pathways that would have been triggered if we perceived a danger signal in our environment (e.g., a carnivore) that would threaten our existence. In addition, it provides updates on our social environment which would be necessary for our group’s survival.

This orienting process is automatic. For example, when you sit next to someone and they open their computer screen – without being prompted and against social etiquette – you automatically glance at their screen. The changing visual stimulation especially in the peripheral vision triggers us to orient to the cause of the visual changes.  In the past these peripheral changes would indicate that there is something going to which we need to pay attention.  It could be the tiger shadowing us or a possible enemy.  Now the ongoing visual display changes hijacks our vigilance that evolved over millions of years for survival. Looking at and being captured by the screen has now become an evolutionary trap (Peper, 2015). A fictional account of the stress generated during  texting when there is not an immediate response is superbly described  by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg (2015) in their book Modern Romance.

Besides automatically responding to the novel stimuli, our neural reward pathways are activated when we respond to the stimulus, click and scroll and are rewarded by text, videos, or music. The rewards from our scrolling, clicking and surfing are intermittent and creates the internet addiction.

As a result, many people preemptively check their phone or automatically respond to notifications during their waking hours. In social situations, constant phone interruptions cause others to feel slighted and snubbed. In our research students who use their phone the most experience significantly higher levels of isolation/loneliness, depression and anxiety than those who use their phone the least as shown in Figure 1 (Peper et al, 2016).

high and low

Figure 1. Self-reports of isolation, depression and anxiety were significantly higher for students who use their phone the most as compared to those who use their phone the least during socializing.  Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2016.

Being on-call and continuously checking the phone also contributes to multitasking which interrupts attention and performance (Jarmon, 2008; Brinols & Rajesh, 2014). Many students no longer focus on one task at hand; instead, they are multitasking and interrupt their tasks by by responding to social media, listening to music or surfing the web (Swingle, 2016Clement and Miles, 2018).   In our recent survey of 135 university students, almost all report that they multitask even though it would be better to focus on the required task and shift focus after the task was done as is shown in Figure 2 (Peper et al, 2014).

multitasking

Figure 2. Self-report of multitasking. Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2014.

How come we have become so addicted that we feel the urgency to check our phones day and night even if when there are no notifications?

The screen is the first focus of attention when we wake up and the last one before sleep. We cannot even wait to finish a meal or talk to a friend before checking the phone for possible updates.  For this addictive behavior, we can thank the major tech companies who have hired the smartest and brightest engineers, programmers and scientists to develop software and hardware to capture our attentions and conditions us to be addicted to increase corporate profit: more eyeballs, more clicks, more money. For a detailed analysis of how Tech companies created our addiction, see the superb article by Michael Schulson (2018), If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?

Do not place the blame on the child or adult who claim they do not have self-control.  The addiction was predominantly created by tech companies in their quest to capture market share by exploiting our natural evolutionary survival responses to orient and attend to a change in our visual and auditory world which has become an evolutionary trap. By providing intermittent reinforcers, the addiction is quickly established and challenging to overcome (Alter, 2017).  The addiction is similar to the opioid addiction which was created by pharmaceutical companies in their on-going quest to increase profits. Just as opioid addiction leads to long term harm, I wonder about the long term harm of internet addiction. It may be worse than the opioid addiction because it reduces actual social connections and emotional regulation, increases distractibility and attention deficit and, and decreases self-initiative (proactive versus reactive behavior) which may result in compromised health and well-being.

Being plugged-in and connected limits the time for reflection and regeneration. This un-programed time allows new ideas and concepts to emerge, provides time to assess your own and other people’s actions from a distant perspective.  It offers the pause that refreshes and time for neural regeneration. Our nervous system, just like our muscular system, grow when there is enough time to regenerate after being stressed. Ongoing stress or stimulation without time to regenerate leads to illness and neural death.  The phenomena can be seen in the development of rat brains.

Neuroanatomist Professor Marion Diamond showed that rats who were brought up in an impoverished environment and had very little stimulation had a thinner cortex and less dendritic connections than rats brought up in an enriched environment (Rosenzweig, 1966; Diamond et al, 1975).  More importantly, an excessively enriched environment was associated to a reduction of neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity (Joels et al, 2004). The more hours of television a child between age 1 and 3 watched was directly correlated with associated attentional problems at age 7 (Christakis et al, 2004). This suggests that excessive stimulation during brain development may be harmful.  Thus,  from a biological perspective health is the alternation between activity and regeneration. If the brain is not allowed enough time to be off-line and regenerate, neural degeneration most likely will occur.

Mobilize your health and disconnect to allow regeneration. Take charge of your addiction,  regain social connections, and develop proactive attention.

  1. Recognize that you have been manipulated into addiction by the tech companies which have covertly conditioned you to react to notifications and creating the desire (addiction) to check for updates.
  2. Become proactive by limiting interruptions when you work and play.

Recommended readings

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. A superb analysis how screen saturation at home and school has created a wide range of cognitive and social deficits in our young people.

Foer, F. (2017). World without mind-The existential threat of big tech. New York: Penguin Press. A passionate informed case that the great tech companies are robbing us of our individuality, humanity, our values and how to deal with complexity. It offers strategies to take back your autonomy and mind.

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers. Based upon 18 years of clinical observations this book describes in detail how the digital revolution is change our brains and offers constructive strategies how to use the digital tool constructively.

References

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Ansari, A. & Klinenberg, E. (2015). Modern Romance 
by Penguin Press: New York.  https://www.amazon.com/Modern-Romance-Aziz-Ansari/dp/0143109251/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518021029&sr=1-1&keywords=Modern+Romance

Brinols, A.B. & Rajesh, R. (2014). Multitasking with smartphones in the college classroom. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 77(1), 89–95. http://journals.sagepub.com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/2329490613515300

Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., &  McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. Pediatrics. 113(4). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/708

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Schooled-Veteran-Teachers-Technology/dp/1613739516

Diamond, M. C., Lindner, B., Johnson, R., Bennett, E. L., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (1975). Difference in occipital cortical synapses from environmentally enriched, impoverished, and standard colony rats. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 1(2), 109-119. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1223322

Jarmon, A. L. (2008). Multitasking: Helpful or harmful? Student Lawyer, 36(8), 31-35. https://ttu-ir-tdl-org.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/10601/925/Jarmon_Multitasking%20Helpful%20or%20Harmful.pdf?sequence=1

Joels, M.., Karst, H., Alfarez, D.,  Heine, V.M., Qin, Y.,  van Riel, E., Verkuyl, M., Lucassen, P.J., & . Krugers, H.J. (2004). Effects of chronic stress on structure and cell function in rat hippocampus and hypothalamus. Stress, 7(4), 221-231. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10253890500070005

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, E., Lau, S., Mitose, J., & Rogers. (2014). Cellphone and multitasking survey of college students.  Unpublished manuscript. San Francisco State University.

Peper, E. (2015). Evolutionary/environmental traps create illness: Be aware of commercialized stimuli. Psychophysiology Today-The E Magazine for Mind-Body Medicine. 10(1), 9-11. http://files.ctctcdn.com/c20d9a09001/eabdf1d4-f4a1-4eea-9879-44ff24e6224c.pdf

Peper, E., Silva, L.M., & Grasham, G. (2016). Cell phone use by university students. Unpublished manuscript, San Francisco State University.

Rosenzweig, M. R. (1966). Environmental complexity, cerebral change, and behavior. American Psychologist, 21(4), 321-332. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0023555

Shulson, M. (2018). If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/if-the-internet-is-addictive-why-don-t-we-regulate-it?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=b9442547f4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_29&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-b9442547f4-68958453

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers.

 

 


Look up! Be aware and be open new possibilities

How is it possible that one is lonely while being connected to hundreds of Facebook friends, networked with even more LinkiedIn  colleagues,  and continuously sending and receiving Tweets and texts?  Are we so captured by the digital devices that we do not notice the actual reality around us? Watch Gary Turk’s remarkable video and then remember to look up and connect with others.