The Net Effect

In an 80-minute class for which I recently guest-lectured, the instructor (a master teacher) gave students a mid-class break to enable them to stretch and talk to classmates. What a great way to build community, I thought. Alas, two-thirds of the class never moved. Rather, they pulled out their smart phones and sat staring at their screens. There was no face-to-face conversation, just solemn silence. 

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

When I recounted that story to tech expert psychologist Larry Rosen (co-author of The Distracted Brain: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us) he replied that “I see this all the time EVERYWHERE.”

The students I observed don’t exemplify The Onion’s recent parody (“Brain-Dead Teen, Only Capable of Rolling Eyes and Texting, To Be Euthanized”). But they did bring to mind the recent Western Psychological Association presentation by Rosen’s students, Stephanie Elias, Joshua Lozano, and Jonathan Bentley. They reported data on smartphone usage by 216 California State University, Dominguez Hills students, as recorded by a phone app. The stunning result: In an average day, the students unlocked their phones 56 times and spent 220 minutes—3.7 hours—connected. Moreover, more compulsive technology use not only drains time from eyeball-to-eyeball conversation but also predicts poorer course performance.

Today’s technology is “so user-friendly that the very use fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” says Rosen in iDisorder. If smartphones interfere with “having social relationships, then it is a problem, and it really is what I consider an iDisorder.” As Steven Pinker has written, “The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.” We can live intentionally—by managing our time, blocking distracting online friends, turning off or leaving behind our mobile devices, or even going on a social media fast or diet—all in pursuit of our important goals.