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Psychology of Technology: Caught in the ‘Net

If you’ve followed my tech-related blog posts over the last few years (if you haven’t, you can catch up here), you know that I have real concerns and what I consider to be some healthy skepticism about the impact of new technology and social media on people, particularly their biggest consumers, children and young people. I know I can come across as either a Luddite or an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m really neither. Though I’m far too old to be a "digital native," I am certainly a long-time "digital transplant;" thoroughly dependent on technology for my work and also trying to keep up with the tech curve by actively using Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. And, yes, like so many digiterati, I too struggle with finding a balance between being connected and unplugged.

With that said, a recent international study (more than 1000 students from ten countries across five continents) that asked students to disconnect from technology for 24 hours revealed results and insights that were startling, disturbing, sobering, and just a little bit hopeful. Just to give you a little taste of the findings, the adjectives most frequently associated with this period of disconnection were addiction, failure, boredom, confusion, distress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression; not one feel-good descriptor in the bunch. On a positive note, about 25 percent of the sample actually saw the benefits of unplugging. Here are some of the more compelling conclusions.

Addiction was the most widely used descriptor of the one-day moratorium on technology. Though there is considerable debate within the mental-health field about whether tech dependence is a true addiction, like alcohol, drugs, or sex, the students’ expressions of their need to be connected certainly looked like addiction (and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck). Not only did they miss the functions that the technology offered, for example, texting, surfing the Web, and listening to music, but they actually craved the devices themselves. Said a English student, "Media is my drug; without it I was lost. I am an addict. How could I survive 24 hours without it?" Added an American student, "After experiencing this dreadful 24-hours, I realized that our obsession with media is almost scary. I could not even begin to imagine the world if it was media-free."

Not surprisingly given the students’ seemingly unhealthy relationship with technology and social media, a "clear majority" was unable to last 24 hours unplugged. The study revealed the indispensable role that technology now plays in students’ and, by extension, all of our lives. A Chilean student screams, "I didn’t use my cell phone all night. It was a difficult day…a horrible day. After this, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA!" As with many aspects of our popular culture, young people (and many adults) seem to have lost sight of what "need" means. People may really, really, really want their smartphone, mp3 player, or tablet, but I tend to view need as related to food, water, and shelter.

Technology seems to be shifting from a tool that people use to, as the study suggests, something that is a part of who we are, an element of our identity and sense of self, almost as if we are becoming cyborgs without the implantation. When separated from their technology, many students described themselves as feeling lost, incomplete, confused. A student from Lebanon said, "The idea of my phone kept jumping into my mind. I was not eager to message or call anyone, I was more eager to just ‘see’ my phone in front of me."

Abstention from media revealed an unrecognized loneliness among the students who participated in the study. They not only realized how shallow their relationships were when mediated by technology, but that their deepest relationship was with their technology. "All I wanted to do was pick up my phone and become a part of the human race again," said a UK-based student (don’t miss the irony of this statement).

The limits in information set by text messages, tweets, and RSS feeds (did someone say 140 characters?) also becomes the default depth of that information. The study found that the constant inundation of information that flows through technology and social media prevents most students from having the time or interest to read beyond the headlines. What’s the possible outcome of this superficial knowledge of the world? Well, how about a poorly informed citizenry incapable of fully grasping and making reasoned decisions about the complex issues with which they will be faced in their lives.

The study showed how incredibly bored students were without technology to entertain them and many had difficulty finding ways to fill their time. Said another Chilean student, "I started to think about things to do without media, and found out that actually I couldn’t think of many." One troublesome aspect of this boredom is that dependence on technology may be taking its toll on this generation’s initiative and imagination.

And just so I don’t end this post on such a downer note, there is a small ray of optimism that came out of this research. Many students in the study found the 24 hours of disconnection to be an eye opener and a wake-up call. Many were shocked at learning how much time they actually devoted to technology and social media. They also noticed how the quality and depth of their relationships improved while unplugged. Wrote a Mexican student, "I interacted with my parents more than the usual. I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted."

Others learned that they could actually enjoy life without the leash of technology. Said a US student, "I’ve lived with the same people for three years now, they’re my best friends, and I think that this is one of the best days we’ve spent together. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures."

The one-day vacation from cyberspace also put its use in perspective. Another student from Mexico insightfully observed, "Media put us close to the people who are far away but they separate us from the ones who are nearby."

Importantly, a number of students learned that they didn’t actually NEED technology and could, in fact, survive without it. In fact, some students experienced a transcendental moment in which, for that one disconnected day, they walked the path of quiet and calm and saw that there was much to be gained from unplugging from technology and plugging into life. Said another US student, "I became more aware with my own thoughts. I realized that maybe it’s important to disconnect every once in awhile and let your brain remember you."

If I were a true cynic, I would probably say, "We’ll see how long that epiphany lasts after plugging back into the ‘Matrix.’"

But, as a cautious optimist, I’ll conclude by saying, "Ah, hope springs eternal…"