August 09, 2011

Psychology and Smart Phones: The Risks of Overusing your PocketPC

Ever since the discovery of fire, technological advances have been a two edged sword. Fire could keep us warm and cook our food but it could also burn us and burn down our dwellings.

Even though smart phones have revolutionized the speed and convenience of our communications, access to information, media and even entertainment, there is another side to this popular gadget that we're going to talk about that today as we look at the risks from overusing smart phones.

Many folks are aware of the problems of distraction and rudeness that are associated with smart phones; things like texting while driving or sitting at the dinner table. Others report that smart phones can distract parents from watching their kids or husbands and wives from paying attention to each other.   Research has also shown that heavy use of smart phones create serious psychological risks.  Folks who are always "on" their phones are at significantly higher risk for a number of psychological problems because having access to the net 24/7 impairs ability to be patient and overloads our brains with more input than they can process. Here are four examples: 

  • Increased impatience and increased stress;
  • Impaired concentration; 
  • Reduced creativity; and
  • Addictive behaviors.  Here is why. 

Increased Stress: Smart phones are great when they work but they don't always work.  Reduced tolerance for waiting is a serious problem created by instant gratification of the internet and "chat" technology.  While we were accustomed to and expected to wait with older technologies, the information superhighway has shortened our tolerances so that when we are forced to wait due to glitches, we become emotionally and even physically stressed.  (Think about how it felt the last time you computer crashed or you lost important data you didn't have backed up.)

Impaired Concentration and reduced Attention Spans : Pocket PC's have created a 24/7 version of the channel clicker. Like Seinfeld used to say, folks aren't interested in what is on a given TV channel, they are interested in "what else" is on.  Smart phone makes the infinite variety of the internet available to us at time or place. While this access is convenient, it also can overload our brain's capacity to digest and process all the information. We go into overload and are unable to concentrate on any one task.

Reduced Creativity: Science has learned that, in fact, our brains need periods of down time in order to function at their highest levels and to be creative. Constant stimulation from the internet and social networks do not allow for these necessary breaks.

How to know if You're addicted.  On study suggests that  smart phones are as addictive as cigarettes.  Activities to which one is not addicted are done for pleasure.  Addictive behaviors are done to prevent withdrawal symptoms which are very unpleasant.  Ask yourself. " How do I feel if I am unable to check my Facebook or Twitter page ?"  Do I feel bad if I'm unable to go online? 

Tips for Managing Smart Phone Use:

I am not against technology and I enjoy the benefits of the internet and my smart phone as much as anyone. However, the keys to preventing serious social, psychological and even physical problems are easy to do:

  1. Awareness and Self Monitoring It is important to know how often and how long you are on your smart phone. Try counting the number of times  you "check" your facebook page an clock the amount of time you spend on it . (Be honest.) The numbers may surprise you. Do they sound reasonable or excessive?  
  2. Set Limits and Use with Moderation . Parents need to monitor and set limits on internet use for their kids and adults need to do the same for themselves.
  3. Taking breaks from using your phone.
  4. Have Low-Tech Back Ups (like writing letters) to prevent over-dependence on the device.
  5. Keeping a Realistic Perspective about time and speed. Challenge the assumption that I must have something immediately. Ask yourself: "Is my life really ruined if my computer is down for an hour or even a week ?.   

These remarks were prepared by the Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC for Bridge Street, 8 9 2011.

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