Addicted to Our Screens, or Merely Obsessed?

Digital distractions collide with the brain’s fundamental attention limits.

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

odd CoupleHow often do you hear—or think to yourself— “I’m addicted to my phone,” to “Facebook,” Instagram, or some other social media venue? Are we actually really addicted in the way that people become addicted to alcohol, gambling, or drugs?

Scientists debate whether we truly are. What no one seems to dispute is that our attention spans have gone to hell.

It is hard to deny that we are at the very least obsessed with our various screens given how many times we check them each day, often for longer stretches than we wish to admit. Lying about the magnitude of one’s use, especially lying to yourself and rationalizing it, is a cardinal symptom of physical addiction.

How concerned should you be? I recently wrestled with the question of screen addiction and its ill effects in an essay for The American Interest. The editors titled it “Technovelty Watch: Your Brain on Screens.” The buzz it has gotten shows how widespread interest in the problem has made it an important cultural issue. For the past year I have been interviewing students and teachers from K–through–college about digital distractions and their effect on learning and memory. You can read the essay here (link is external), or listen to the Podcast.

The oldest among us have lived through The Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Gen–X, and the Millennials. The latest cohort, at the moments called Generation Z, will never have known life without the Internet and smart phones. They had iPads in their cribs and car seats just as earlier generations had teddy bears and Sesame Street toys in theirs.

The relevant question is whether we are producing a generation of unfocused, scatterbrained screen addicts who, along with their parents, don’t see any harm in being constantly jacked in. Nor do they appreciate how profoundly they are being manipulated by corporations that have powerful financial interests in hijacking and holding their attention. What should we call this generation? Anything descriptive sounds unkind.

But make no mistake: the jacked–in generation is unwillingly part of a cognitive science experiment on a colossal scale. It is understandable for them to resist the adjectives often applied, or resent the charge they are all slaves to their mobile devices. “I can stop whenever I want,” they say, which is what addicts of all stripes say. But they can’t stop: studies repeatedly confirm that deprived of their devices for as little as 10 minutes, heavy screen users become anxious. Their anxiety escalates by the minute until they get their gadgets back and get a “fix.”

Space precludes me going into the nuances of what one actually means by “screen time” given the variety of what can appear before us and how we engage with it. Watching a film on DVD perhaps comes closest to following the linear argument typical of a book or essay, an activity that hones one’s attention. But too often films are watched while multitasking, or watched before bedtime on LED screens whose blue light interferes with the sleep hormone melatonin, exacerbating an already sleep–deprived nation.

Reading a book or watching a film is unlike brain challenges further down the spectrum such as the endless scroll of social media sites whose updates prod you to look at “Just one more,” to say nothing of on–line gaming in which far–flung opponents never look you in the eye and you look no one back. Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk sold their goodies with the promise of making us more “connected.” Yet they have done the opposite for many. They feed a sense of alienation and isolation by distancing them from real human contact.

Screen time in all its varieties affects how we think, learn, attend, form memories, and retrieve them. It has made thinking and reflection shallower than they once were. It has impaired reading comprehension, the ability to form a coherent sentence, and to unite considered sentences into well–considered articulate thought. A question to ponder is whether screen time will be the death of attention spans, and ultimately of us.

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