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The Unintended Consequences of Technology

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Our Connected World

As smartphones, tablets, social media and other digital strategies reshape the way we educate our students and do our jobs, scientists and psychologists are beginning to question what our dependence on technology is doing to our minds.

For the first time in history, “Internet Use Disorder” will be listed in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. Even in the Silicon Valley, there’s a growing concern that technology is taking over our lives. Matt Richtel of the New York Times says we need to rethink how it affects us.

“We’re done with the honeymoon phase, and now we’re in a phase that says, ‘Now, what have we done?” says tech guru Soren Gordhamer, who organized an annual conference called “Wisdom 2.0” to explore the necessity for balance in this wired world. Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are now teaching their own employees meditation and “mindfulness,” cautioning them on the dangers of constant texting, tweeting and web-surfing.

According to Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.” Others insist it’s not the gadget’s fault. We cannot blame our phone or computer for our addictive behavior; for our compulsive need to check for texts or emails at a stoplight or at the dinner table. So who or what is to blame?

  1. Employers who expect staff members to be available 24/7.
  2. Our emotional insecurities, requiring us to see what others are doing, 24/7.
  3. Our culture that makes us feel guilty for taking any time off or away, 24/7.
  4. Our human system that responds to technology with a squirt of dopamine.

Did you catch that last one? Research shows that consistent use of these devices is actually rewiring our brains. Every time your phone, tablet or computer pings with a new text, tweet or email, it triggers a sense of expectation and the reward centers in our brain receive a “squirt of dopamine.”

Eventually, a brain adapted to these quick fixes shrinks the structures needed for concentration, empathy and impulse control, whole growing new neurons receptive to speedy processing and instant gratification. What’s more, brain scans of Internet addicts—anyone online more than 38 hours a week—can resemble those of cocaine addicts and alcoholics. Symptoms of Internet addiction range from depression to psychosis.

So, what can we do to combat this syndrome?

  1. Go outside. Seriously—take a walk. Enjoy nature. Slow down your pace.
  2. Find a place to serve others. Build empathy through community service.
  3. Go on a technology fast. Plan to unplug from it all for 24-48 hours.
  4. Balance the hours in front of a screen with face-to-face hours with people.
  5. Wait on something you want in order to build your “delayed gratification” muscle.

Most folks agree—technology’s a blessing and a curse. Like anything, moderation is the key. Let’s work to keep it positive and make the technology work for you, not the other way around.