The Toll of Technology

December 2009 8,050 views No Comment

From rotary dial phones to on-demand podcasts: it has changed the way we communicate, bond, and cope.

Depending on your frame of reference, it has been a seismic shift that has turned communication, socialization, and family life upside down. Or it has been progress at its best, the least to be expected from a new millennium.

Technology. It has redefined the way we learn, the way we think, and the way we live. And it has changed us—for the worse or for the better. Or both.

Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychologist at California State University- Dominguez Hills, sees both sides of the coin. He will play devil’s advocate when others claim that a generation immersed in an unceasing barrage of text messages, Facebook status updates, and tweets have become antisocial beings with serious interpersonal deficits. But he also points to research that links media consumption to physical and psychological health problems.

“We know that this generation sleeps less than any generation before, and we also know that media use leads to unhealthy eating, which leads to all forms of ill-being—including psychological problems, behavioral problems, attention difficulties, and physical symptomology,” Dr. Rosen says. Citing his own research studies, he specifically addresses the issue of multi-tasking—using or viewing several media simultaneously—and its impact on the Millennial Generation, or “the Net Generation,” as he calls it.

“It’s an issue that transcends junk food and lack of sleep,” he says. “In the simplest terms, we could say that when multi-tasking is taking place, more neurons are firing, taking oxygen away from the brain, which results in a negative impact on health in general.”

Digital multitasking has been widely associated with today’s youth and college students, and has produced a deluge of research on the implications and consequences. A 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the average 8-to-18-year-old spends more than eight hours a day using digital media. Dr. Rosen found that when multitasking is taken into consideration and time spent using each distinct medium is collectively tallied—even though many took place concurrently—Millennials log more than 20 digital hours a day, almost triple the time spent by Baby Boomers. True, that may include passive activities such as listening to music and watching television, but it also represents hefty doses of interactive communication— texting, IM chatting, emailing, and social networking. Add to that the occasional (or not so occasional) video game or charting a virtual path through the glut of information available on the Internet. Dr. Rosen found that Baby Boomers, by contrast, put in only seven collective digital hours a day, with television and music accounting for half of that.

One concern that has surfaced is the effect that heavy technology use has on the still-developing brain. In his book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Dr. Gary Small, a University of California-Los Angeles neuroscientist claims that the neurological pathways used in face-to-face communication are not developing in today’s young people the way they developed in previous generations.

Without eye contact, you can miss so many of the subtleties that are a part of interpersonal communication.

“The empathic skills that come from receiving an affirmative nod or an encouraging smile are just not being formed,” he says. “Without eye contact, you can miss so many of the subtleties that are part of interpersonal communication. We can only speculate what this might mean 10 and 20 years down the road. Will digital natives— young people who only know Facebook-to-Facebook communication rather than face-to-face communication—lack the social skills they need?”

Dr. Lukasz Konopka, a Chicago School neuropsychologist, agrees that technology overuse is likely to impact brain development.

“People who use technology as a primary source of communication have very different expectations for their social relationships,” he says. “If they don’t learn to read facial cues, that can translate into poor relationships and make it harder to develop dependency and trust. We have yet to discover what the longterm consequences will be.”

The link between the increasing use of online communication and its psychological ramifications has been the subject of exploration for several years now. In a 2005 survey completed by more than 1,000 mental health professionals and reported in the Monitor on Psychology, isolative-avoidant use of the Internet was identified as a diagnosis in 15 percent of youth clients. Psychologists echoed concerns expressed by Dr. Small and Dr. Konopka, citing an inability by Millennials to read body language and facial cues.

Some researchers also attribute a recent rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—a 3 percent annual jump between 1997 and 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—to increased media exposure by children whose brains are not yet capable of processing a lightening-fast parade of visual images. The experience, they say, may train young brains to become dependent on excessive stimulation, to become bored with the pace of real life, and to rapidly shift from one stimulus to another. This could explain the propensity of Millennials—who often grew up in front of Sesame Street and animated television programming— to multitask. With an explanation about the plasticity of children’s brains, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended not exposing babies under 2 to television.

Although Dr. Rosen refers frequently to the “techno-cocoons” that he says shroud heavy media consumers—particularly this generation— he also disputes the ill effects of too much online communication.

“I would argue that this generation is connecting more and not less, although they may be connecting in a way that Baby Boomers like me don’t think is communication,” he says. “They have an incredible opportunity behind the safety of a computer screen, and are able to say things that they are not sure will be accepted.” He adds that technologies such as ichats and cell phone cameras also mitigate the effect of cyber-communication, actually offering users a chance to view others’ reactions.

Dr. Dave Verhaagen, a North Carolina psychologist who wrote Parenting the Millennial Generation, agrees.

“Technology is part of their DNA—they use it to facilitate relationships,” he says. “When you look at the big picture, you see that they’re pretty relationally skilled. We have to get past the speculation that their use of technology is hurtful to their ability to have relationships.”

Technology is part of [Millennials’] DNA—they use it to faciltate relationships. When you look at the big picture, you see that they’re pretty relationally skilled.

At the other end of the digital comfort spectrum is technophobia, most often associated with the older generations—Traditionalists and Baby Boomers. A decade ago, Dr. Rosen wrote TechnoStress, a book that addresses the overwhelmed feeling that users—especially technology newcomers—get when dealing with the digital overload that was nonexistent a few years ago. Many experts call for strategies to bridge the brain gap that emerges between the older and younger generations. Dr. Small provides a technology toolkit that can bring Traditionalists and Boomers up to speed with their children’s generations, and also puts his UCLA students through a series of empathic listening exercises to help them rebuild the face-to-face skills that have fallen between the cracks of their smartphone key boards.

Consequences of excessive media exposure do not appear to be confined to Millennials. The excessive use of video games—frequently fingered as the culprit in diagnoses that range from ADHD to aggressive behavior—affects a broad age span. While under-30s have distinguished themselves as the masters of multitasking, their use of video games can be matched by Generation X. A new study from the CDC has placed the average age of the adult video gamer at 35, higher than previously believed. But the emerging classification of Internet addiction can also be found among Baby Boom shoppers who frequent E-bay and Traditionalists who take their poker games online.

Although not yet recognized as an official diagnosis, this new form of addiction is receiving attention around the world and especially in Asia, where Internet rehabilitation centers have begun to spring up. Here in the United Stated, the first such facility opened in July in Fall City, Wash., and the diagnosis is being considered for inclusion in the 2012 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

“Everything that is human can be acted out using technology,” Dr. Small says. “Whether it’s shopping or gambling or social networking, technology is just another pathway to addiction.”

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