Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us
By Larry D. Rosen, Nancy A. Cheever, L. Mark Carrier
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Larry D. Rosen
All rights reserved.
i D i s o r d e r
Why Are We All Acting Crazy?
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. — Albert Einstein
If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger. — Frank Lloyd Wright
Einstein and Wright had some pretty strong thoughts about technology, thoughts that are particularly prescient since they were uttered decades before the invention of the Internet, the smartphone, and the iPad. Consider the following all-too-typical scenario. The other night I went out to dinner and a movie. Dinner was at a popular local restaurant known for its seafood and casual ambiance. As the waitress led us to our table, I couldn't help but notice how nearly every single person had a cell phone lying flat on the table right next to their dinner plate. Literally, it seemed as though most people were eating fish with a side of smartphone. As we ordered and ate I watched diners continuously pick up the phones, tap some keys, and put them back down, only to repeat the same action again and again. Younger people appeared to do this more often, but nearly everyone, young and old, picked up their phone at least once during the meal. It felt a little like I was watching a room full of people engaging in obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
We arrived at the movie early enough to watch the previews, and the theater was packed. During the previews I realized that again nearly everyone had a cell phone in their hand and nearly all were actively engaged with their devices — I could see quite a few glowing screens in front of me displaying text messages, e-mail messages, websites, and other unrecognizable small video images. The final preview screen asked patrons to please turn off their phones and I did so and put my phone away in my pocket. Ten minutes into the movie the woman in front of me pulled out her phone, tapped some keys, and sent a text as a man next to her appeared miffed. After she did it twice more in a matter of a minute, the man tapped her on the shoulder and quietly and politely asked her to please turn off her phone. She looked at him as though he were asking her to do something so horrific that she couldn't comprehend his request. A few rows ahead a young man checked his phone every 30 seconds or so as though waiting for an important message. I would guess that at least one in four people used their phone during the movie, some continuously. When the movie ended nearly every single person immediately pulled out their phone, even before the credits started rolling, and scrolled through whatever it was that they had missed over the last 90 minutes. If I didn't know better I would say that many of the moviegoers were suffering from some form of attention-deficit disorder.
Back in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was just starting to become popular, I wrote a book about fighting TechnoStress. I followed that up with a book on how to parent high-tech kids during the MySpace craze and then wrote about how to educate our iGeneration teens and children using Web 2.0 tools. In all this, I started to see a pattern: Every year a bevy of new gadgets, apps, and other technological innovations appears and immediately becomes part of our common language. Look at all those technologies that did not exist a mere five to ten years ago and are now part of our normal everyday lexicon: Twitter, Facebook, iPad, and more. In 2008, the New Oxford American Dictionary's number one new word was hypermiling (driving your car to maximize fuel economy) but in the top ten were tweet, moofer, link baiting, and overshare, all technology-related terms. In 2009, unfriend was the number one new word, and four other tech words were in the top ten (netbook, hashtag, sexting, and intexticated). In 2010, the word of the year was refudiate, which came from a Sarah Palin–tweeted shortening of the words refute and repudiate, followed by retweet and webisode. The bottom line is that we are seeing more new technologies each year, and we are rapidly making those technologies — and their descriptors — part of contemporary society.
Where does this rapid influx of technology leave us as we cruise into the second decade of the new millennium? Consider the following scenarios:
A young adult receives a Facebook post that carries a mild putdown and lashes back with a barrage of insults. The exchange carries on for days with escalating nasty posts.
A college student leaves home and is almost to campus before discovering that she left her cell phone at home. She immediately drives home and back again at the expense of missing her first class.
A businessman continually checks his BlackBerry at the dinner table, ignoring questions from his wife and children.
A mom calls her 11-year-old son to dinner a dozen times with no response only to find him firmly planted in front of his Wii, seemingly deaf to her exhortations.
A young woman watches hours of television shows featuring young, svelte, good-looking actresses and reality television stars, and diets excessively trying to make her body look "perfect."
A middle-aged man clicks on one of his son's Facebook friends' photos and spends hours jumping from one page to another looking at the pictures.
An elderly woman wanting information about her continually aching leg muscles joins an online discussion group called "real limb pain" and brings reams of printouts to her doctor to convince him that she has a variety of diseases from gout to cancer.
A high school student is studying for his final in history and continues to switch his focus with almost no conscious control from reading the textbook to Facebook back to reading a few sentences and then to an IM conversation, music on his iPod, a reality TV show, and his cell phone.
All of these are familiar scenarios that are repeated across the world. But if we saw two young adults screaming insults at each other or a businessman continually checking work papers at dinner and ignoring his family, you most likely would say that those people had a problem, perhaps even a psychological disorder. Yet these examples are neither uncommon nor are they evidence of a certified diagnostic psychiatric condition. What we are looking at is a new disorder, one that combines elements of many psychiatric maladies and is centered on the way we all relate to technology and media: an iDisorder.
In this groundbreaking book, I, along with my colleagues Dr. Nancy Cheever and Dr. L. Mark Carrier, will take you through some of the more common psychiatric disorders — communication disorders (including aspects of antisocial personality disorder, social phobia, autism, and Asperger's syndrome), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, hypochondriasis, schizoaffective and schizotypal disorders, body dysmorphia, voyeurism, and addiction — and provide evidence from up-to-date research in a variety of fields ranging from psychology to neuroscience, from sociology to anthropology, from communication to biology, to show you how we are all manifesting the symptoms of these serious disorders.
I am not anti-technology. Far from it. I have always been an early adopter, starting back in the 1970s, when computer technology began to make inroads into our lives. I have owned at least a dozen computers, from my first TRS-80 to more PCs than I can count. I carry a smartphone and an iPad and spend hours texting my kids and friends.
The argument that I will make is that overreliance on gadgets and websites has created an enmeshed relationship with technology and that this relationship can cause significant problems in our psyche, what I call an iDisorder. I will also argue that we are being compelled to use technologies that are so user friendly that the very use fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions. I will paint you a picture of a population driven to an iDisorder, and I will show how we all need to be aware of our relationship with technology in order to avoid being pulled into a world of button clicks, finger swipes, and glowing screens.
ARE WE ALL CRAZY?
According to recent statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, a whopping 46 percent of American adults will suffer from a psychological disorder in their lifetime; an equal percentage of children and adolescents will also experience bouts of anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or some other psychological malady. I am not arguing that we are all crazy and technology is to blame. I find, however, that our actions and behaviors when we use technology make us appear out of control. And I have to wonder whether all this technology is actually helping or hurting us.
We can't ignore our phones even as we're driving a car, walking, eating a meal, or talking to a friend. We can't do seemingly simple activities without first consulting the Internet. We can't tear ourselves away from the highly addictive, highly compelling world of cyberspace. As you will see in the following chapters, we are, according to the signs and symptoms in the current American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), suffering from several clinical and personality disorders along what are known as Axis I, or mood disorders (e.g., depression, ADHD, schizophrenia), and Axis II, or personality disorders (e.g., antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).
In the next ten chapters I will explore some of the most common psychiatric disorders and show solid research that demonstrates how the technologies that we use daily coerce us to act in ways that may be detrimental to our well-being. I will also show you — through a variety of sound psychological perspectives and theories — why I think that happens. Finally, in each chapter I will provide you with straightforward strategies to reduce and even eliminate the symptoms. I am not proposing that you give up all technology and media, not even for a day. That's not possible. We are way past the point of no return. But it is not too late to recognize the craziness that technology can promote and discover new ways to stay sane in a world that encourages — and even promotes — insanity.
One of the strengths of this book is that I come from a psychological perspective that integrates theory surrounding the psychological impact of technology and scientific research demonstrating how specific media and technologies can and do promote mental imbalance. I began my scientific research in the early 1980s as one of the first psychologists to examine reactions to new technologies. I first studied computerphobia in the 1980s, then switched to technophobia in the early 1990s, when our world changed drastically with the introduction of the Internet and, more specifically, the increasing popularity of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s. As I continued my research I soon realized that what emerged was not a contained, specific phobia like agoraphobia or arachnophobia, but rather an ongoing state of anxiety that I termed TechnoStress.
Fast forward to the end of the millennium and we began to see the emergence of mobile technologies, including laptops and cell phones, which would prove to be the root cause of an impending major societal change. No longer did we face most of our technology in the home or the workplace. Now we carried it with us wherever we went and consulted it for a variety of purposes. No longer did technology make us anxious — in fact, quite the opposite. We came to depend on it. We were happily traipsing down the road to an iDisorder.
Don't doubt that many of us suffer from an iDisorder. It is unavoidable, as you will see in this book. It is not fatal and we are not doomed to spend time in a mental institution or a rehab center (although there are hundreds of these designed to treat Internet addiction all over the world). With a few simple strategies we can safely emerge from our TechnoCocoons and rejoin the world of the healthy.
As I prepared to write this book I realized that while we had done a hefty amount of research on issues pertaining to the impact of technology and media on parenting, education, generational similarities and differences, and cognition, we had not specifically studied psychiatric disorders and their relationship to our connected behavior in our wired world. So, in early 2011, using anonymous, online surveys, my colleagues and I administered a well-respected test of psychiatric disorders to survey more than 750 teens and adults and examined the relationship between their psychological status and their use of media and technology. On the technology front we asked our participants — who ranged in age from young teens to adults in their seventies — how many hours a day they are: online, on a computer but not online, texting, making and receiving phone calls, joining instant message (IM) conversations, watching television, listening to music, sending and receiving e-mail, and playing video games. Given the popularity of social networks, we also asked how often they used Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter and, at a more detailed level, how often they read Facebook postings, posted status updates, and posted photos, and how they felt about offering self-revelations and gaining social support online. In addition, we asked our participants about their attitudes toward technology, including: how often they kept up with new technology; how often they checked in with their technologies; how much anxiety they had about being away from their gadgets; how they went about personalizing their phones and computers; and how much they relied on computerized assistance in order to work effectively. Finally, given the research we have done in the past on multitasking, we asked about people's preferences for multitasking versus focusing on a single task at a time.
In all, the 766 participants included 85 Baby Boomers, 118 Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1979), 409 members of the Net Generation (1980–1989), and 154 iGeneration teenagers(1990–1998). The group was well represented by different ethnic and cultural backgrounds from urban and suburban Southern California and had a range of education levels, occupations, socioeconomic statuses, and living situations. As with most of our large-scale survey studies, the sample represented the Southern California census figures.
The purpose of the study, as I stated earlier, was to determine whether the level of someone's psychological health might be related to his or her use of technology. With this in mind, we examined those variables that might predict poor or good mental health from among a variety of technologies and media as well as attitudes and beliefs. In all analyses we attempted to be fair and reasonable in our conclusions by first eliminating (statistically) any possible confounding variables including gender, age, socioeconomic status, education, living situation, and ethnic or cultural background, all of which can be related to both technology use and mental health.
A SNEAK PREVIEW
Although I will cover data relevant to specific disorders in each chapter, I would like to offer you a sneak preview. Based on our data, certain technologies appear to be related to certain psychological disorders. For example, those people who spend their days sending and receiving e-mail messages demonstrate many of the signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Taken alone, this may not tell the whole picture. However, when you add in that narcissists are also more likely to use their cell phones for both talking and texting, spend more time on Facebook uploading more personal photos and updating their page constantly with status posts, are more likely to personalize their technology (e.g., naming their car, talking to their GPS as though it were a real person), and become more anxious and nervous when not able to check texts, phone messages, and Facebook posts, it all begins to paint a complex but understandable picture of how technology is leading many of us to our own personal iDisorder.
Similarly, those people who spend more time on Facebook or video gaming are more likely to develop a major, multi-symptomatic iDisorder than those who spend less time social networking or battling alien enemies on their home gaming system. Other technologies, such as sending and receiving e-mail or watching television, are also related to certain specific disorders. (Continues...)
Excerpted from iDisorder by Larry D. Rosen, Nancy A. Cheever, L. Mark Carrier. Copyright © 2012 Larry D. Rosen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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