Rewired: The Psychology of Technology

How technology influences family life, education, the workplace, and every waking moment of our lives.

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Do we ever just "enjoy" or do we have to document and share our lives online?

I was in London recently and, of course, spent a good deal of time people watching. Everywhere I looked people were texting, browsing (not the type of browsing done in a store), posting to Facebook and looking down at their smartphones. I actually watched someone walk into a pole while texting. Momentarily stunned, she sidestepped the pole and didn't appear to "mis a wrd." Those not staring down at a phone had iPod ear buds implanted and appeared to be listening to music. My final night I was having dinner at a sidewalk café in Kensington and watching a man (in his 30s) sitting at the next table with two young women, perhaps in their late 20s. Honestly, none of them let go of their BlackBerrys and iPhones for a second. Most of the time they were looking at them and tapping keys, but even when their phones were on the table they had a hand poised close by. In fact, I snapped several shots (with my iPhone, of course) of all three of them clearly talking and texting simultaneously. Interestingly, the conversation seemed to be lively and continuous with nary a timeout for a texting break.

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When I returned home and was back to being on PST, I realized, somewhat chagrined, that perhaps the reason I was so aware of all of the technology around me was that I was rarely using my iPhone in Europe unless I had access to free wireless due to the high data download charges. I have been back for a few weeks now and have been a participant observer of how people of all ages are using technology in public. In my own informal study - which I plan to formalize - I have noticed that practically everyone feels free to whip out their phone in public, with or without friends and concurrent conversation, and answer a text or e-mail whatever it is they are doing on the phone. Interestingly, although I have rarely noticed anyone making a phone call while speaking to someone else, I have seen several people - mostly teens and young adults - initiate a phone call while seemingly carrying on a conversation with their companion either busying herself with answering email or texts or joining in the conversation. On the 4th at a post-fireworks Joan Jett concert two young women in front of me spent most of the show taking videos, posting them to Facebook and commenting on other FB posts. One of the women literally did not let go of her BlackBerry [my apologies for eavesdropping AND taking a photo of you texting and scrolling through your FB wall posts].


So, my question to you is a question posed by my friend at the concert. Is the level of "enjoyment" of an event the same if it is simply viewed and listened to rather than recorded, described, posted, blogged, or augmented by the simultaneous use of one's technology? Did all of those people videotaping the fireworks enjoy them as much as the ones oohing and aahing and watching through their own eyes rather than their camera lens? I do know that people on vacation have always taken lots of photos and movies and, personally, up until what seems like only a few years ago, after coming home from a trip I would perhaps show my photos to some family and friends and then they would languish in a drawer. For many years I assembled photo albums from each trip, carefully labeling each picture and adding in maps and snippets of brochures, only to realize that the album sat virtually untouched from a month after the trip until it was replaced by the next one.


When I returned home from this trip, however, I immediately uploaded my 155 "best" photos to Facebook (don't ask me how many I took in the 14 days - that's the luxury(?) of having a smartphone camera that seemingly holds an infinite number of snapshots), e-mailed the link to family who are not on FB (I thought everyone was on FB which currently houses 400 million active users and would be the third largest country in the world if they were all in real space rather than cyberspace), and received many accolades on my photos (again, don't ask me how many I had to cull to get the 155). On FB, however, the posting soon faded into "older posts" to be seen rarely like the photo albums of years past.


So, again, I pose my question in several other ways: Is the enjoyment of an event enhanced or diminished by sharing it with others electronically at the moment? Can you really "enjoy" fireworks if you are seeing them through your camera lens instead of your eyes? Can you "enjoy" a conversation if you are continually checking in with your electronic universe of friends?


I am not sure that I have an answer to these questions. The Baby Boomer in me wants to scream that it is not the same. You have to "be in the moment" as we used to say and how can you do that if you are constantly self-interrupting. However, as the father of four children - two Gen Xers, one Net Gener and one iGener - I watch with admiration how my kids can seemingly do it all. Sometimes it is exhausting to watch but I have to admit that I am doing more and more of this split attending myself. From Cherry's early dichotic listening research, we know that it should not be possible to attend to two alternative stimuli and keep track of both. The same conclusions come from the research on texting and talking on the phone while driving. But are these kids really doing two (or more) tasks at the same time or are they just better at switching from one task to the other?


Our world is not a laboratory and just because it appears to us, on the outside, that kids are multitasking, our research is indicating that that may not be the case. In one study while college students watched a videotape in their classroom we sent them text messages on their personal cell phones timed to arrive when important information was being shown on the screen. Students were asked to respond to our texts and their responses were more than single words (the average number of words was around 10 per response text). Yes, the students who got more texts during the videotape did worse on an expected test of the material, but they did not do all that much worse. In fact, only the group that got 8 texts in 30 minutes did significantly worse while those who got 4 texts did not do any worse on the test than those who received none. Interestingly, those students who waited for a few minutes to respond did significantly better on the material that was directly interrupted by the text than those who responded immediately upon receiving our text.


Our working theory is that students who waited to respond were evidencing a form of metacognition where they understood -perhaps subconsciously? - when important material needed to be attended to and when there was "slack time" available for texting. Is this what is happening with our apparently multitasking children, teens, and young adults? One would argue based on brain physiology that since the seat of metacognition and multitasking are in the prefrontal cortex, and since the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20s and even 30s in many people, that our young students should not be able to be interrupted and pay attention to the videotape. But just watch kids task switch all day long and you will get a sense that some have an awareness of when it is a good time to move away from the primary task and fill in with a secondary one. Many, however, appear to not have a clue. These are the ones that fail to complete their homework assignments, don't pay attention in class, and appear to be deaf when they are playing a video game and mom calls them to dinner [although in all fairness, our research does show that task switching is most difficult for people of all ages when playing video games].


We have now begun to replicate our classroom text message interruption study with high school students and are anxiously awaiting the results. What do you think? Will teenagers be better at task switching because they do it so often, all day (and night) long? Or, will these kids with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes suffer large decrements in performance when task switching? Will they be devoid of the metacognition of when it is a good time to text and when not? It didn't seem to bother the young adults who were eating next to me in London to text and talk at the same time but the young woman did walk into a pole. What do you think?

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and the author of Rewired.

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