Is Mobile Technology Addictive?

Although few would argue that mobile technology is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, one must ponder whether the average human even scratches the surface of what his or her mobile device’s capabilities. Today’s smart phone replaces a clock, a timer, a stopwatch, and an alarm clock. A calculator. A calendar. A reminder service. An email reader. An ebook reader. An Internet browser. A GPS device. A music player. An online course catalog. A home security platform. A banking tool. A heart rate monitor. A word processor. A spreadsheet. A still camera. A movie camera. A photo album. A F2F comm device… You get the idea. And that’s just native apps! Marvelous machines, for sure…

In schools, a day does not go by that youngsters can’t be seen walking the halls, head down, enchanted by their iPhone. I am a huge proponent of classroom technology. After all, I’m a blogger, an online course designer, and an author. But for most students, mobile technology seems barely more than an expensive texting machine that takes pictures and makes phone calls. Doubtful? Ask a high schooler what Nozbe is? How about Spark? Evernote? With so many great apps, why do most “screenagers” do more little than text, snap, and listen to music.

What’s the problem?

According to behavioral expert Dr. Jean Twenge, the current generation of adolescents engages more in self-aggrandizing behaviors than any preceding generation. (Read The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.) This behavior is propagated by apps like Snapchat, Twitter, and Instragram. When used in this manner, social media also has a tremendous effect on influencing groupthink at all levels. How else do we explain political correctness?

Alas, it’s not just teens who are addicted. A growing number of bona fide grown-ups and even some elderly have become enchanted by mobile technology. But it’s teens, averaging 9 hours of screen time a day, that seem to be losing touch with their friends and family. Teens have never known a world without smart phones. Meanwhile, if you graduated prior to 1990, you still remember cassettes, typewriters, and getting up to change the television channel for your parents.

How about a screen fast?

A screen fast will not likely cause people over age 35 to go into complete meltdown. Research suggests that youngsters are more at risk of anti-social behavioral and developmental disabilities due to excessive screen time. Many of these kids grew up being babysat by technology. When they enter an setting (i.e., school or work) that precludes the use of such technology, they can actually get moody, crazy, and lazy. In fact, Psychology Today reports this moodiness. If you’ve ever asked a student to put their iPhone away during a lesson, then you have no doubt witnessed anything from grade martyrdom to crazy emotional outbursts.

What is needed is an electronic fast. The Psychology Today report goes on to say that parents and clinicians have both noticed a reduced need for “meds” when screen time is reduced. The reason they say it is so effective is that a fast undoes the psychological dysfunction caused by excessive screen time.

Of particular interest to teachers, the report also says that too much screen time desensitizes the brain’s reward system. That revelation makes sense, since many students asked to surrender their phone until the end of the day have no motivation to perform academically. Moreover, they act as though they are the victim of some form of gross injustice done to them (Dr. Twenge has researched the victim mentality). It’s as if the think throwing a little temper tantrum — which typically ends after the “terrible twos” — will somehow sway an authority figure’s decision. On the contrary, hissy fits only embolden the teachers’ resolve in having made the right decision.

The researchers also report seeing increased dopamine levels in the brain, especially with video game use. That’s the brain “feel-good” chemical that looks the same as cocaine in brain scans. I’ll let the reader connect the dots. The future world of The Beam describes people so connected that they commit suicide when their Beam connectivity is disrupted!

Some schools are a technology free zones while others are more tech-friendly. And at least locally, there does not seem to be an association between cell phone policy and school performance, though I’m sure the jury is still out on this one.

What are your thoughts on whether mobile technology is addictive? Schools schools be screen-free zones?