Face the Facts: We Are All Headed For an iDisorder

Group of smartphonesIt 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.”

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.

iDisorder coverDo 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 me or I compared to the number of times you use we, us, they or other inclusive pronouns. One of the signs of narcissism is a focus on the self and our specialness.
  • 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.

© 2012 Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us.

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, is past Chair and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a research psychologist and computer educator, and is recognized as an international expert in the “Psychology of Technology.” Over the past 25 years, Dr. Rosen and his colleagues have examined reactions to technology among more than 30,000 children, teens, college students, and adults in the United States and in 23 other countries. He has been quoted in numerous media outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, CNN, and Good Morning America and writes a regular blog for Psychology Today.

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  • Nunzio X

    The more I read stuff like this, the more I feel like just walking away from all this connectivity.

    Because, what REALLY are we connected to? And why is it “better” than what homo sapiens connected to up until the dawn of this Golden Age of connectivity.

    I dunno…I just don’t know what to think about all this.

    • Malk

       It’s a sickness plain and simple, you can think like that Nunzio. I have two cell phones, one for work, one for myself, both are old school 0yen phones that came with the service package and are not capable of singing dancing or pretending to be a birthday cake for my children… And I don’t want them to do any of that crap. For my schedule I use a notebook that fits in my pocket, it requires no charging, in fact has 0 running cost, and it only cost me about 800yen. (It doesn’t increase my risk of cancer either by the way) My phones are for calling people when I can’t find them in my building or they don’t answer their desk phone, or sending my girlfriend a message saying, “I’m working until I die tonight, but I love you and it has been fun.”

      I was at the University of Washington 4-5 years ago walking around after driving a friend to the campus hospital for some sort of check-up, and was disgusted to see groups of teenagers all walking around in groups, without talking or even looking at each other. They just all stared individually at their phones, didn’t even notice the trees or the sun or the “friends” walking right next to them. Remember all those great movies from the 80s whenever there’s a college campus scene and young adults are all mulling around laughing and talking together? What happened??

      I use my phones for communication when I -need- to, they are very useful, but I don’t use them for games every half second of free time I get (though many around me do), I don’t use them to check facebook every 15 minutes (though many around me do), and I don’t talk to other people from a distance when they are people right next to me. It’s a sickness plain and simple.

  • Honu

    I remember when i bought my evo 4g over a year and a half ago.  I felt my brain changing day by day as I spent more time interacting with it.  I had an urge to return it several times but the shiny object kept grabbing my attention.  There’s times I feel hooked like a junkie to it.  I do have my own business and some of the apps are very useful to the work I do as well as how I organize and run my business so I rationalize my phone addiction pretty easily.  Still, I feel there’s something wrong with this. I’m glad I grew up without these gadgets.  I have a barometer for life without them and I know that I had a much different way of thinking and interacting with life.  I can’t help wondering if we are just building more walls around us. 

    • Malk

       Kids getting iphones at like age 6 now!! it’s scary! They’s rather google “rock” than look beneath their own feet! X[

  • Bruteloop

    I bought one of the first generation iPhones and hated it. Yje battery life was rubish, the apps largely gimmicks at the time and I found I couldn’t actually hear conversations on it too well. I stopped using it and went back to my not smart phone. Then I get a free upgrade on that to an HTC smartphone. I don’t bother with apps for that. I leave that at a friend’s place at Xmas an so go back to my old not smart phone again. Although the HTC was returned I have yet to go back to using it.
    Well, I doubt I will. I need a telephone not a computer. 
    After the concerns about apps and privacy the last thing I would wish to do is load a bunch of those on to it. Besides, I have never once found myself thinking ‘Darn, I really need that app right now’.
    I also deleted my facebook page. I have never had any interest in Tweeting. 
    On the train journeys I often take I read a book.
    I keep the ringer turned off on my phone most of the time and then check it maybe twice a day.
    I charge the phone once a week.

    I have never lost out or missed out on anything because of this.

    Most people don’t actually need much of all this. They are just made to feel they do.

    • Bruteloop

      Though I see I could do with a spellcheck app. 

      • Malk

         lol, not at all good sir. spelling is overrated. along as the point gets across the reason for language has been achieved. I agree entirely with your post.

        As for the “scary technology” post above, books are great, writing is a huge aspect of any civilization, very necessary. so is wireless communication, there’s nothing wrong with an iphone or an android or whatever; it’s the abuse that is a sickness. people that forgo their LIFE in order to play everquest, or gamble on their iphone, or whatever. there is nothing wrong with an iphone inherently, it is the mass-marketing and really in a way “drug-pushing” approach of these devices onto children of such young age, and people of such small intellect.

        Then again here we are arguing on disinformation, so what the fuck do we know, right? XD

  • mysophobe

    I’m guessing this is the exact same reaction many people had to books and printed literature when they first became widely available. Then it was telephones, TV, rock and roll, video games, walkmans, personal computers and early cell phones. Some technology is always supposedly destroying our youth. Seems like more scapegoating for the purposes of misdirection to me.

    Sent from my iPhone

  • Technofile

    What? This is nonsense. I love the connectivity. IO have the answer to almost anything in my pocket at all times. I can get a million things done in a day at work. I stay in touch with people I would otherwise lose in the shuffle and I can buy things cheaper than ever. What are you all bitching about exactly? Technology is so scary! Whaaaa!!!!! Whaaaaa!!!!

  • Stone Age

    I hate you.  I still love my analog cellphone.  It never freezes, has great batter life, and allows me to talk to my friends…GPS?  I have a map!  Old fashioned?  Sure.  Problematic?  Not for me!

    I am sick of people using the universal “ALL” when they really mean the existential “MOST”

    We are not all addicted to stupid crap.  Just the writer of this article and a creepy growing majority of techno-addicts.  Leave me out of your generalization.

  • WhoCares

    Don’t own a smart phone, don’t care. All this technology and people still have nothing to say.

  • health

    Jose Arguelles has a similiar, though less kitschy, critique of mechanical time. John Zerzan makes the claim that the primary effect of technology is to distract its user from their immediate surroundings. Both interesting points and worthy of discussion. 

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/myconica Threedinium

    Well you know, this article does bring up a good point. I’ve observed some people to feel threatened in a very physical and survival-orientated way when disconnected from the internet or unable to find their new gadget phone, viewed from the outside looks like sheer madness. I too have suffered mildly from such a thing in the past and it took yogas and allsorts to finally bring me out of having to fix my attention constantly on something. Whatever’s happening to us to cause us act this way about our technology, it’s potent and difficult to break. I wouldn’t mind reading that book, Mr Rosen.

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