Have you ever felt like you couldn't stop yourself from checking your email or sending a text message, even when it annoyed everyone around you? If you have, you're hardly alone.
I saw that first hand the other night while attending a rare (and expensive) appearance by jazz giant Sonny Rollins here in San Francisco. People all around me were tweeting and checking email and even taking photos, in violation of a very explicit request by the hosts.
My first reaction was to get mad. When I had cooled down, though, I remembered a conversation I had this summer with a Stanford lecturer named Kelly McGonigal, who has written extensively about what she calls tech addiction. "Forget cigarettes and candy. We're becoming addicted to our devices — phones and email and our computers and our iPads," she says.
Yeah. That sounds a little like touchy-feely California-speak, and an excuse for rude, thoughtless behavior. But McGonigal has studied this issue, and says that the response in our brains to gadget-deprivation is similar to the feeling we get when we try to stop smoking or using drugs.
"We're talking about people feeling out of control in relation to some behavior or stimulus or substance, and compelled to use it more than is good for them. They recognize that it is interfering with the quality of their lives; that is a basic definition of an addiction," she says.
McGonigal and other experts have a number of suggestions for kicking tech addiction. Here are two of McGonigal's:
"You need to set a support structure for yourself. In the same way you wouldn’t keep junk food in your cabinet if you’re trying to improve your health, you should think of ways to put the phone away. Put it in airplane mode or recruit other people to remind you that you made a commitment to not text while driving.
"Second: Surf the urge. Pay attention to what it feels like in your body and to your breathing. Think of the urge like a wave you are going to surf, and breathe through it. Like a wave, it will crash and dissolve. Cravings sustain themselves when your brain and body believe you are going to give in. As soon as you make a commitment not to, it begins to change how the brain is processing the craving. This approach has been shown to help people conquer all kinds of cravings, from food to cigarettes."
There's something else going on here as well. Constant use of the Web and mobile devices doesn't just affect our behavior, it also appears to be shortening our attention span. "Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention," wrote Nicolas Carr in a 2010 book called "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."
Carr marshals a good deal of evidence drawn from work which argues that the use of digital technology is actually changing not just what we do, but how we think.
He refers us to the work of Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA development psychologist who studies the use of media and its effect on learning: "Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."
Or as Carr puts it: "We're becoming, in a word, shallower." So not only are we addicted to our devices, the content we consume on those devices makes us even less likely to focus on a given task.
The most egregious example of a dangerous, tech-induced shriveled attention span is the appalling practice of texting and checking email while driving. That, by the way, is not restricted to Americans. When I was in Hanoi a few years ago, I was horrified to see young people texting while driving motorcycles. That’s even worse than interrupting a Sonny Rollins concert.