The last 150 years has ushered in more technological advancement than the previous 4000 years of recorded history. This dynamic progress has had many positive contributions, but with it have come unintended side effects. Technology has become so pervasive in our lives that it is controlling many of our lives. This is most apparent in our dependence on smartphones. Think of the separation anxiety that many of us experience when disconnected from the virtual world for any significant amount of time. This paper will explore how our dependence on technology is affecting us on personal level.
Technology addiction is reaching epidemic proportions. “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” (Definition of Addiction, 2011) This affect is not only limited to the young, as many might like to believe. The effects of always being connected are being manifested in unimaginable ways some of these are mental/physical health issues, reduced cognitive function/attention span and diminished interpersonal/communication skills.
This connectivity creates an interesting paradox. We are connected to a virtual world and disconnected from the natural one.
The psychology behind technology addiction is beginning to identify a host of issues. “Excessive use of technology has been associated with several mental health concerns such as poor psychological well-being, poor self‐ confidence, anxiety, depression, lower emotional stability, and lower life satisfaction.” (Ali, 2018) They have found that this addiction is not exclusively to our phones, even though they are the most common device we use to connect.
Rather we can develop addictions to specific platforms, social media sites, blogs, etc. We seek through this addiction what will deliver the most euphoric experience possible. This dependence on constantly activating the brain reward system; disrupts what is normal behavioral response given a virtual stimulus.
This is evident in the horror many of us feel when our phones die, and we have no way to recharge them. We feel like we lose an appendage. This emotional roller coaster of the anxiety of waiting on text response or the depression we might feel from not receiving many likes on a social media post. These virtual triggers can lead to the gradual disintegration of our mental health and self-esteem. It is not all bad news. Technology has allowed us to connect in ways once only seen in the movies. Technology is being used to deliver virtual care in psychology. We can video chat with our family on the other side of the world, for instance. These are examples of how technology is improving our lives and can benefit mental health. This tool is used responsibly can be a bridge to possibilities never imagined and a brighter future.
Physical health is a consideration that I had not previously considered. Issues that might develop as a result are obesity, vision impairment, injuries, musculoskeletal symptoms, and sleep issues. These are just a sample; many more exist and are being discovered daily. The most prevalent of the physical issues is injuries. “Devices are often used while carrying out other tasks (i.e., walking, driving) and may cause the user to be more susceptible to accidents.” How many people do we observe texting and driving on just about any care ride? “Drivers who are texting while behind the wheel have a 23% higher chance of causing a crash. That is equivalent to downing four beers and then getting behind the wheel.” The statistics are showing that drunk driving fatalities are decreasing while distracted driving are going up. We try and do many things with a cell phone in our hand. We believe we can do multiple things at one time. Try rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time. Our brain is only capable of being able to effectively do one thing at a time. When we split our attention, it can have disastrous effects.
This fallacy of our being able to be in the virtual and natural world at the same time is leading to changes in our cognitive functioning and attention spans. “The constant use of technology has shortened our attention span from 12 minutes to 5 minutes. Constant news feeds and videos that are 10 minutes or less has rewired our brains. People who are online an average of 5 hours a day have trouble remembering people’s names.” Technology addiction is creating a generation of young people who are easily distracted and impatient. These observations are being made by teachers and parents alike. Studies are underway to determine what specific effects it is having on cognitive function. A cognitive issue that has been observed is the way technology is altering and possibly even hindering our memory. “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.” With our attention always in flux it makes encoding anything to memory nearly impossible.
Authentic communication and interpersonal relatedness are our only real methods of true connection. We might be able to supplement these with technology. But without context and physical proximity, what we mean and say can be lost in translation. Most of our communication with each other is based on nonverbal cues. (Ex: smiles, eye contact, nodding head) These cues are vital to determining if our audience is genuinely invested in what we are saying. Technology precludes this. Ironically, studies suggest that social media is making us less social. We might go to a party and just take selfies to post. “Awash in technology, anyone can hide behind the text, the e-mail, the Facebook post or the tweet, projecting any image they want and creating an illusion of their choosing. They can be whoever they want to be. And without the ability to receive nonverbal cues, their audiences are none the wiser.”
This lack of interpersonal connectivity is also creating problems in the workforce. Many employers list the lack of interpersonal/communication skills of today’s youth as their number one concern in recruiting and retaining talent. It also has had negative effects on efficiency, productivity, and time management. “In the workplace, the use of electronic communication has overtaken face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication by a wide margin. This major shift has been driven by two major forces: the speed/geographic dispersion of business, and the lack of comfort with traditional interpersonal communication among a growing segment of our employee population: Gen Y and Millennials. Studies show that these generations – which will comprise more than 50% of the workforce by 2020 – would prefer to use instant messaging or other social media than stop by an office and talk with someone. This new communication preference is one of the ‘generational gaps’ plaguing organizations as Boomers try to manage to a new set of expectations and norms in their younger employees, and vice versa.”
Technology has forever changed the way we interact and communicate with each other. This new era will require a new set of skills to be successful in it. We must seek beneficial ways of using technology to empower and elevate humanity. This requires that we learn how to balance our natural and technological world. If they work synergistically, the future holds no limits as to what can be made possible. However, nothing is worth the cost of losing what matters most to be human. “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.” Albert Einstein