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The High Cost of Digital Distraction

girl textingAdults, teenagers—and even many elementary school students—are spending more and more time with smart phones and tablets. These devices that we carry around in our pockets, purses, or backpacks certainly add convenience to our lives, but do they come with a cost?

“Yes, they do,” said Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “When we over use our devices, we lose track of time and space.”

He said that research shows 80 percent of an average person’s time in front of a smart phone, tablet, or computer is not productive time.

The overuse of technology can be especially difficult for teachers in the classroom. Greenfield said, “If students have devices out with access to WiFi or a 3G or 4G signal, we have to assume that, four-fifths of the time, they’re using their devices for non-educational purposes.”

He added, “There’s no such thing as multitasking. If a student has a device in hand and you want him or her to pay attention to a lecture or class project, you’re out of luck.”

Greenfield said that many schools he is familiar with don’t allow students to use their phones in the classroom for this very reason, but once students are home, they’re frequently left on their own when it comes to technology use.

If students are constantly switching between Facebook, an entertainment website, and their English essay, they’ll take five times as long to complete their homework, Greenfield said.

“We originally had the idea that technology was going to considerably amplify student learning, but that has not panned out,” he said. “We thought that if we gave kids technology they’d learn more and more, but data hasn’t shown that to be the case.”

Greenfield is quick to point out that he isn’t suggesting we get rid of technology, but that we need realistic expectations for what digital technology has to offer.

“We can’t not use technology today, and kids do need to be facile with it,” he said.

Healthy use vs. over use

For that reason, Greenfield recommends that kids be trained on healthy computing. Just as parents are encouraged to feed their children nutritious meals and model healthy eating, parents should also make sure their children have a healthy digital media diet.

“While kids are in middle school and high school they should be trained on healthy computing,” Greenfield said. He advises parents to limit their children’s technology use to two hours or less per day and make sure there are regular times when children aren’t carrying a phone.

Parents should also make sure their children have adequate opportunities for real-time social interactions and sufficient physical activity. “The rise in technology use in this country correlates with the rise in obesity,” he said.

But Greenfield added, “By the same token, we can’t take texting away from teenagers—it’s their generation’s differentiation language. To take away texting or Facebook—where they hang out virtually—is not reasonable given that it’s where their social life takes place.”

Dangers of too much technology use

One of the biggest problems with email, text messaging, and other online activities—and what makes them addictive for some people—is the variable positive reinforcement. We’re constantly driven to check our phones, email, or Facebook because there’s always the possibility of a new message from a friend or an announcement from our favorite store about a one-day-only sale—but we can’t predict when we’ll receive these messages.

Greenfield said, “The variable positive reinforcement of digital technology operates like a slot machine. Every time you find something that you’re looking for, you get that pleasurable hit of dopamine.”

That promise of that dopamine rush is especially dangerous when we’re driving. Teenagers and young adults who rely on texting as a primary communication method require a real strength of will to leave their phone on the seat next to them when they hear the ding of an incoming text.

Greenfield said that we are 15 times more likely to be a distracted driver if we’re texting while driving. “It’s extraordinarily problematic,” he said.

In the case of texting and driving, more, better technology may actually be part of the answer. “Apps that limit what phones can do while we’re driving have a lot of potential,” Greenfield said. “There’s technology likely to come out in the near future that can even tell the difference between the driver and passenger of a car.”

In Vermont it’s illegal to touch a cell phone at all while driving, and Greenfield thinks we’ll see similar laws in all 50 states in the next five to ten years. “Such laws will make texting and driving less of an issue. Cops will be able to pull you over.”

According to Greenfield, police departments will have technology similar to a radar gun that will be able to scan a car to see if a text message is coming from the driver.

Greenfield said that awareness about the downsides of digital technology has just hit people’s radar now in a big way. “People are finally starting to realize that technology is not the savior they thought it would be. It’s not necessarily the devil either, but it’s not all good.”

He added, “Technology has a lot of power, but we need to respect that power.”

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