Rewired: The Psychology of Technology

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

Taking a (Virtual) Break: Can You Survive Without Your Technology for 24 Hours? I Doubt it!

Can You Survive Without Your Technology for 24 Hours?

I read the other day about two "experiments" to see how people could deal without having certain technologies at their beck and call. In September, Harrisburg University declared a week without social media on campus while 53 students at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon went all the way and eliminated all technology from their lives for a week. Cold Turkey. A literal technology fast. So, how did it go? Well, at Harrisburg estimates were that only about 10%-15% of the students adhered. As late-night television host Jimmy Fallon's said during his monologue on Monday: "Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, 'We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.'" I wonder how many students they had to ask at Lincoln High to get those brave 53. To quote one of the students, "I feel really anxious because I don't know if I'm missing something important. I keep thinking I can't wait for this to end because I need to check my e-mail. How many Facebook notifications am I going to have after this?"

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Our dependence on technology is not limited to Net Generation young adults or iGeneration teenagers. WE ARE ALL DEPENDENT ON TECHNOLOGY. This was driven home to me with full force the other day. The electric company had told us that at 9:30 PM we were to have a blackout for several hours or more. We wrote ourselves notes, charged our cell phone and laptop batteries, unplugged most of the electronics so that we would not have a blowout when the power went back on and sat on the bed in front of the TV waiting for the power to go out. The head of our bed moves up and down and we always have it up for watching TV. Sure enough, around 9:30 the TV went out as did all the lights.

No problem. We had it covered. We opened our laptops and both said, "damn, the Internet is down!" ... wait for it ... here it comes ... and we both realized that the wireless router is plugged into the wall. No Internet except on the phones. Sigh. We could handle it. After all we had flash lights to read books and magazines so we settled in and grabbed the remote to lower the bed. And, you guessed it, the bed stayed in the upright position. The bed is plugged in and without the electrical current it stays in its position. Needless to say we slept quite uncomfortably sitting up that night but learned an invaluable lesson. WE TOOK OUR TECHNOLOGY FOR GRANTED.

Imagine the following scenario: You are on the road, say to work, and you realize that you left your cell phone home. How many minutes are you willing to drive back to retrieve it? I routinely ask my college classes that question and the answer ranges from "I wouldn't drive back" to "Dude, are you kidding me. I would drive an hour!" Interestingly, the older students most often say that either they would not drive back or they would but only if it were just a few minutes. The younger ones are more likely to immediately return home.

A month ago I gave a talk to a private combination middle school/high school and, as I love to do, I asked the school to arrange for me to meet with groups of students. We talked about the usual issues - multitasking, Cyberbullying, Facebook, etc. - and then I asked them the same question. One said that he made his mom drive 30 minutes round trip to get his cell phone. Another said that he went home at lunch to get it. The consensus was that every single student would go home to get their phone.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, according to the Nielsen Company, the typical teen sends and receives more than 3,000 text messages a month while making and getting fewer than 200 phone calls during the same 30 day period. Preteens are catching up with nearly 1,200 texts a month. The bottom line is that the phone is no longer a phone. It is a smartphone and the "phone" that Alexander Bell developed is a misnomer. These days it is used way more often as a computer and a "digital" communication device with a large number of apps that connect the smart phone user to Facebook, Twitter and other services that help the user connect to the world.

Sure, the telephone is a device to connect and communicate BUT that connection pretty much demands that both users unitask. And this generation is very uncomfortable when they are asked to unitask. They would much rather switch from one task to another and back again which is easy when you are texting or Facebooking or Tweeting. When you are talking on the phone it is hard to disguise that you are typing something while listening. You are bound to hear, "Hey, are you listening to me? I just asked you a question!"

I will never go on a tech fast nor do I recommend that you do that. However, I have started to notice when I am using a specific technology and it stops working or doesn't work as it is supposed to work. I pay particular attention to my reactions and 9.9 times out of 10 I am upset, antsy, angry, and feel as though I am at the mercy of technology that is not perfect. I am trying to learn to calm those reactions but they are visceral and immediate. I went to a workshop this weekend to listen to a talk on ethics for psychologists and the speaker went into depth about "Internet Addiction"

and whether it is a true addiction similar to gambling addiction or drug addiction. He talked about how it might be defined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual in terms of symptoms and mentioned that although it was considered for inclusion in the latest DSM it was not. If we talked about how many hours we spend on the Internet (or using similar types of technologies such as smart phones) we are all addicted. It is not the time spent but how you spend the time. If you (or your teenager or your spouse) are shirking your family responsibilities, missing work or school, failing to complete work projects or school assignments, ignoring friends, not spending time outdoors, then you are most likely having a problem with your technology. Sheer hours spent online do not define an addict. What defines an addict is the impact of that time on all other parts of life. If my daughter stops coming down to dinner because she is too busy online that is a problem. If my son is so engrossed in a video game that he isn't doing his schoolwork that is a problem. If my spouse stays up late because she is online doing whatever then that is a problem. If I am so engaged with sports on my computer or doing anything technological that I miss my child's piano performance that is a problem.

Do you have a problem with your technology? Do you know anyone who can't leave home without their cell phone and would drive back home from any distance to get it? Does your teenager sleep with her cell phone next to her and text in the middle of the night? It is not Internet addiction but we are all, I believe, dependent on our technology working 24/7. What would you do if all of a sudden a major electromagnetic pulse wiped out the Internet, television, and cell phones? It's certainly a step up from my wireless access and my electric bed, but it is not out of the realm of believability. Science fiction can eventually become science fact.

POSTSCRIPT:

The day after I wrote this draft I received the following article through eCampusNews:

Technology has become so entwined with college students’ often frantic lives that most in a new survey of student technology use say they’d be more frazzled without it. Yet the Associated Press-mtvU poll, released Oct. 7 , also found that being perpetually connected comes at a cost. While 57 percent of students said life without computers and cell phones would make them more stressed, a significant number—25 percent—said it would be a relief. A big majority feel pressured to instantly answer texts or voice mail messages, most get nervous if someone doesn’t immediately reply to a message, and nearly half worry whether messages they get are jokes.

“If you’re without it, you’re disconnected,” Megan Earley, 20, a junior at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said of student technology. “You feel like it’s a lifeline.”

 

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

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