Rewired: The Psychology of Technology

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

Face the Facts: We Are All Headed for an "iDisorder"

Heading for an iDisorder!

[This is a guest post that I wrote for a website to appear on the day my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, was released. I am reprinting it here because I think it does a good job of summing up what I have to say in the new book.]

Face the Facts: We are All Headed for an "iDisorder"

It should come as no surprise that we are all hopelessly addicted to our devices, particularly our smartphones. Why shouldn't we be? We are now able to carry a powerful computer around 24/7 in our pocket or purse. The new "WWW" really means "Whatever, Wherever, Whenever." And we are all succumbing to its draw. Just look at any restaurant table and you will see phones sitting next to forks and knives. It is normal to see someone pick up a smartphone, tap tap tap and put it back down while in the middle of talking. Is this healthy or are we all headed down a slippery slope toward what I call an "iDisorder."

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An iDisorder is where you exhibit signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disorder such as OCD, narcissism, addiction or even ADHD, which are manifested through your use—or overuse—of technology. Whether our use of technology makes us exhibit these signs or simply exacerbates our natural tendencies is an open question, but the fact is we are all acting as though we are potentially diagnosable.

Several recent studies from my lab highlight some of these issues. In one anonymous online survey of more than 1,000 Americans we found that more than half of teenagers and young adults of the iGeneration (born in the 1990s) and the Net Generation (born in the 1980s) told us that they became anxious if they couldn't check their text messages all day long. And text they do! According to the Nielsen Company the "typical" teen sends and receives 3,417 text messages per month. Teen girls top that with nearly 4,000 per month! If the teens sleep 8 hours a night (which is an hour less than recommended) that's between 7 and 8 text messages per waking hour.

The study also showed us that the majority of teens and young adults check their texts and Facebook several times a day. And most of that is on their mobile device, on the go. How about sleep? In one study of 300 high school students, the average teen slept only 6 hours per school night. They tried to make up for it by sleeping more than 10 hours each weekend night but it still all averaged out to only 7 hours per night leaving a weekly 14-hour sleep debt. Eight in 10 of those students told us that they rarely or never get a good night's sleep during the week. They must be studying so hard that they don't have time for sleep.

Well, yes and no.

They are studying but the number one activity in the last hour before sleep is surfing the Internet followed by studying, texting and social networking. Are they simply glued to their laptops? Nope! It is their smartphone that is the cause of much of their sleep debt. Not only is it used instead of a computer, but most teens sleep with it on vibrate or tone and one in four are awakened at night by a text or email that they respond to before attempting to fall back asleep. And most of those activities are done either at the same time or by rapidly switching back and forth. We all multitask - well we are really task switching - and the younger generations do it more but we are all succumbing to the allure of clicking and switching.

It's not just the younger generations who are inundated by technology. One in three Gen Xers and one in six Baby Boomers check their devices all the time. They may not be texting as much but they are constantly checking in with websites, email and other cyberactivities.

Our most surprising study examined a thousand teens and adults to see whether technology use might be related to signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders. The short answer is YES. For each generation, regardless of ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or gender, the more certain technologies are used the more likely it is that the person will exhibit these signs. Different technologies appear to be predictive of different signs. One of the major culprits is social networking, which is a predictor of many disorders.

Do we need to take a permanent holiday from our technology or is there an iCure for an iDisorder? The outlook is very positive if we recognize the signs and learn to take small steps to keep our brains healthy and sane. Here are sample strategies. More can be found in my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us.

  • Social networking can be all about "ME" and it can make us appear narcissistic. I advocate using an "e-waiting" period between writing any post, email, text or comment and pressing the key that offers it to the world. Take a couple of minutes, do something else, and then come back and count the times you use the words "me" or "I" compared to the number of times you use the words "we," "us," "they" or other inclusive pronouns. One of the signs of narcissism is a focus on the self and our specialness. Sometimes it helps us break out of the me, me, me mode by focusing on other people in our lives and commenting about their posts and their photos. Remember, though, that although you may be feeling somewhat anonymous writing posts and comments behind a screen, there is a real person made of flesh and blookd at the other end and your words will have an impact on that person. Be gently and use your e-waiting period to let you reevaluate what you say in any electronic communication. 
  • At the dinner table declare a "tech break" at the beginning of the meal and have everyone check their phones for a minute and then silence them and place them upside down on the table. Now talk for 15 minutes followed by someone declaring another "tech break." The upside down silent phone is a stimulus that says, "Don't worry - you can check me soon." This stops the brain from obsessing about every little e-communication.
  • Using technology evokes excessive mental activity so much so that our brains are all abuzz all day long. Your brain needs periodic resetting. This doesn't take a lot of time. Fifteen minutes of walking through nature (or even looking at a nature picture book), doing puzzles, or talking to someone about something fun and positive are just a few ways to reset your brain. Consider doing one of these activities every few hours to calm the brain and stop the potential iDisorder.

There is no turning back. We live in a connected world and we are better because of it. We know more than ever before and we are more social than ever before. But we have to learn to take care of our brains to avoid an iDisorder. Don't blame Steve Jobs for your compulsions. Take control and do something good for your brain. You will be a better person for it and have better relationships with those around you.

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

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