As the World Wide Web has become a staple of modern life over the last 25 years, we’ve used it in ways that have forever changed our relationships with people and information. That’s come with a big drawback, one expert says: We appear to be living less in the present moment, and communicating less with each other.
Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, studies the impact of technology on our lives. In his new book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” written with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, he examines how communications technology might be making us miserable—and more prone to distraction.
Real human interaction, Rosen says, is more than just exchanging words or images on a screen. It involves body language, tone of voice, interpretation of moods, consequences, and the intimacy that comes with dealing with another person face-to-face.
“We’re not communicating anymore,” Rosen told MarketWatch in a recent interview. “Just connecting.”
That eerie sentiment is captured in a recent series by photographer Eric Pickersgill, where he photographed everyday individuals using their devices but removed their devices just before he took the photograph.
Taking distraction to the next level
Rosen is an admitted “geek” who says his love affair with technology started when his parents took him to a UCLA computer lab and they printed out a picture of Mickey Mouse on a dot-matrix printer. He now has a home filled with connected devices that can demand his attention at every waking—and sleeping—hour.
“We’ve always had this propensity to be distracted,” he told MarketWatch. “That’s sort of human nature. It’s adaptive, too: I mean, as a cave man, if you were easily distracted, you would die. The problem is that the technology world changed everything, because now you have so many more ways of being distracted and you carry a distracting device in your pocket.
“We have sort of become willing to be distracted, but we are not willing to modify our behavior,” he said. “I often describe it tongue-in-cheek as being like Pavlov’s dogs—we respond viscerally. We even see in the research that [when] your phone beeps, your heart rate goes up, your galvanic skin response goes up, you have this visceral reaction that, unless you have the wherewithal to say ‘Oh, I think I’ll leave that for later,’ is going to grab you immediately.
“Quite honestly, it started with AOL: ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ I mean, that was the whole idea—to distract you from whatever you were doing [by] telling you something really important was there for you.”
Now, Rosen says, what was a perhaps-irritating novelty has become ubiquitous as the concept of being distracted by our devices has become widely accepted.
Texting and driving even kills excellent drivers
Self-accepted distraction has real-world consequences. Distracted driving, for example, was recently shown to be behind a jump in traffic fatalities.
“Distracted driving is killing people,” Rosen said. Until even more lives are lost through distracted driving—or some spectacular event occurs, like a celebrity dying—he fears that people will still think it’s OK to sneak a quick peek or text on their phone while they are driving.
“It’s going to be hard to wean people off of that,” he said.
Distraction rules the S&P 500
Meanwhile, corporations have found it profitable to sell distractions. Companies that profit from keeping us glued to the internet and connected devices have seen their market values skyrocket since 1990, when the world was introduced to the World Wide Web, and 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone.
in mid-September, Apple Inc. AAPL, +0.78% Alphabet Inc. GOOG, +0.29% GOOGL, +0.18% Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +0.35% Facebook Inc. FB, +0.14% Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +1.00% Berkshire Hathaway Inc. BRK.A, +0.43% BRK.B, +0.61% Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM, +0.95% Johnson & Johnson Inc. JNJ, +0.73% General Electric Co. GE, +0.30% and AT&T Inc. T, -0.29% had the 10 largest market capitalizations on the S&P 500—meaning 6 of 10 had a direct stake in consumer technology.
What’s a euphemism for doing many things poorly?
The three biggest drivers of the latest technological boom over the last 20 years have been email, the smartphone, and social media, according to Rosen. They have liberated people and increased their productivity, he says, but they have also contributed to an illusion that we can “multitask” efficiently.
Opinion: Why the internet revolution is nothing to email home about
Multitasking is a bit of a misnomer, according to Rosen, because it implies that we can focus our attention on several things at once—which, he says, we can’t. Human beings can only truly focus on one thing at a time, so “multitasking” is really an elaborate plate-spinning exercise Rosen calls “task switching,” in which our attention jumps back and forth.
Rosen says that when he studied middle-school, high-school, and college students, recording them after they were asked to work on a task as they normally would, he found that students with lower grade-point averages correlated with a lower percentage of time spent on the task, their choice of studying strategies, their total media time during a typical day, and a preference for task switching rather than working until a job was completed.
Focus and Facebook don’t mix
Visits to one website—Facebook—predicted a lower GPA, according to Rosen’s study. It didn’t matter whether students visited once or 15 times, he wrote in his book: One visit was enough to predict lower grades.
Rosen told MarketWatch he duplicated the study, asking participants to monitor themselves at home as they worked on a task for 15 minutes, setting a clock to alert them each minute so they could report what they were doing at the time.
“We got exactly the same results,” he said. “They studied for about nine minutes out of the 15, roughly. They studied in about three-minute to four-minute chunks, which is not enough to study anything.”
When he asked participants what they were doing when they weren’t studying, Rosen said 55% were being distracted by a device they used for communication or connection.
“They’re thinking ‘I have Facebook. I’ve got Instagram. I’ve got Pinterest. I’ve got Snapchat. I’ve got three email accounts. I better check on them,’” Rosen said.
And this is going on even if the device’s alerts are turned off, he said: “Instead of an alert making you act like a Pavlov’s dog, you’re sort of getting this internal alert that’s making you act like a Pavlov’s dog. It’s the biochemistry of your brain that’s doing it to you.”
If a tree falls in the forest, and you didn’t post it on social media…
Much of that internal distraction, Rosen said, is connected to a sense of heightened anxiety that occurs when devices are near. It’s a generalized anxiety that you have to be connected or you don’t exist—a phenomenon summed up in the internet quip “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
“People are not living in the present anymore,” said Rosen. “That’s the psychology of distraction—‘distracted’ means not living in the present. We’re starting to see when people are not doing a very good job at living [or] having interactions…It’s changing our definition of what it is to be alive.”
“Social media has upped the ante in [terms of] more ways to occupy time, more ways to feel obligation,” he said.
Willingly going to the dogs
With so many opportunities to connect—and so many people we know connecting all the time—there is a fear of missing out (or “FOMO”) even when our notifications aren’t on, according to Rosen.
“That’s the part that concerns me: We’re sort of becoming inside-out Pavlov’s dogs,” said Rosen. “We’re attending to the wrong things due to the biochemistry of our brains.”
But we maintain some control over our anxiety, Rosen said—we can adopt rituals that calm us down, such as taking repeated deep breaths during tense times. Those are choices we can control.
“We can control how anxious we get,” said Rosen. “This fear of missing out and wanting to check in—we can control that. And the interesting thing is I’m not so sure that people yet feel the need to control it.”
Respect sleep, or it won’t respect you
Devices also disrupt the quality of our sleep, according to Rosen. Many of us sleep with a smartphone charging at our bedside, or finish the night checking out a tablet or doing last-minute work on a laptop. The bright light from our devices upsets our natural preparation for sleep, and sometimes cuts into sleep itself.
That’s what worries Rosen the most. The average teenager runs an average 12-hour-a-week “sleep debt”—the cumulative effect of consistently not getting enough sleep, which leads to fatigue—they can never get back. These disruptions to sleep cycles, he says, make the body less able to clean out the “byproducts of thinking” from the brain.
When you’re sleeping, he explains, the spinal cord opens and sends extra fluid into the brain to clean out the byproducts of the glucose and oxygen burned up during the day’s activities. The brain then flushes out these byproducts.
“By not sleeping well, you’re leaving in toxic substances that are going to basically going to make you start to forget,” Rosen said, pointing toward decreased retention.
The interesting thing about boredom
We also turn to our devices to assuage boredom, whether we are waiting in line, sitting on a train, or with friends. The problem, Rosen said, is that boredom is a necessary state of mind.
Rosen says he currently has a research student looking at historical data to see how bored people were five, 10 and 15 years ago to see if there is any correlation to the rise in communication technology.
“My gut is that he will find that we are much more bored now as human beings, much more unwilling to tolerate the ambiguity of doing nothing,” he said.
“Boredom is critical. When you’re bored, the brain flips into this weird combination of locations that are activated…and what that allows you to do is it allows you to go into the mind wandering, daydreaming, and what [happens] is when you’re in that state your brain pulls together information from different places, and you come up with ‘Aha!’ moments or very good creative moments.
“We have to allow ourselves those boredom periods to be able to let our brain do what it does best, which is tying things from various areas—old memories, new memories, thoughts, just little bits and pieces. See how long you can put yourself in a boredom state with your phone next to you; it’s very difficult.”
Rosen likens that state to what occurs during meditation, in which a practitioner seeks to let go of the chatter of thoughts in their head and concentrate solely on the current moment.
Tech detox doesn’t work, but we can adapt
The solution to easing the anxiety and distractedness our devices impart on us isn’t to detox, according to Rosen. Many of us cannot work or connect with important people in our lives without our smartphones, and a “cold turkey” approach usually leads us back to our old behavior once the detox period is over—perhaps even more anxious because what we worry about we missed meanwhile.
In his book, Rosen suggests a variety of strategies to better balance our real and screen lives.
“This is very tough,” Rosen told MarketWatch. “We got here very slowly; we’re not going to escape very quickly. That’s why I start all these strategies with 15 minutes of a tech break. Don’t let yourself check your email for 15 minutes. Just sort of practice it over and over until you get better at it and you realize the world didn’t fall apart because you didn’t email somebody back in seven minutes—instead you emailed them back in 20 minutes.”
Some strategies to live with our devices, not for them
To fight distraction, here are some ideas Rosen’s recommends in his book:
Driving: Texting or checking email while driving (or being otherwise distracted) increases the risk of a crash by 23 times, no matter how good a driver you think you are. The simplest thing to do is turn off your phone, but there are also apps—such as DriveOFF and DriveMode—that block email or texts when you drive above a certain speed.
Concentrating on critical tasks: Turn off your alerts. Tell important contacts you will be unavailable for a given period. Schedule breaks in advance and deal with critical alerts at designated intervals. And don’t just use breaks for rushing back to your phone: Exercise briefly, daydream, or have face-to-face conversations.
Real-world socializing: Rosen points to the recent phenomenon of “cellphone stacks,” where people who are out to dinner or drinks place their phones in the middle of the table and agree that whoever grabs their phone first pays the tab. “I think that’s an awareness of ‘I want to be present, but I just can’t do it without help,’” Rosen said.
Create technology free periods or zones in your house, or establish similar boundaries with others in face-to-face social situations.
Sleep: If you’re using your smartphone as a bedside alarm clock, buy a cheap alarm clock, and charge your phone somewhere else where it isn’t readily accessible. Remove distracting technology from your bedroom if possible. Use apps, such as Essential Calls for Android devices, or the “Do Not Disturb” and the “Allow Calls From” functions on the iPhone, that block nonemergency contacts from calling or texting while you sleep.
What’s in front of us is always the most important
“On the whole, technology is magnificent,” Rosen said. “The way we use it is not magnificent. And I think part of what we have to learn is that we are far more productive when we can attend, for periods, to anything. That means our school work, a report we are writing for a job, a conversation we are having with a friend, going to see a ballgame, anything.
“The experience is richer, you remember more, [and] you have a more rich life around it if you can learn to do it without the technology distracting you partway through it. What I see is that we’re eschewing what’s in front of us for what is in the phone. That worries me, because what’s in front of us has always been the most important thing in our life.”
Rosen’s and Gazzaley’s book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World” comes out in October from MIT Press.
By: Wallace Witkowski