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April 9, 2012

“Get off your phone, I’m talking to you.”

Since the BlackBerry, ubiquitous connectivity has made slaves of smart phone users. Smart Phones provide instant gratification, a quick fix for the connectivity that we are so hopelessly addicted to. Even while we are with the people we love, we often hear the words quoted above. Such behavior stems, not from loneliness as we’d expect, but from neediness. Our brains crave social connection and the feeling of being plugged-in. They have rewired themselves to adapt to our multi-tasking lifestyles. It’s not that we want to habitually check our phones; we need to.

But is this addiction bad? In a review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Jonah Lehrer writes that our lack of concentration “isn’t really the fault of the Internet. The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist.” Replace “the Internet” with “smart phones” and you have what amounts to an indictment of the human mind itself.  However, Lehrer points out that technologies like video games and Google’s search engine actually make us smarter. “Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.”

Perhaps connectivity and its accompanying technologies are not the villains at all; perhaps the real problem is us. Human beings are weak. We have taken a very useful tool, the smart phone, and transformed it into a substitute for human interaction. Everything we crave is there: connection, communication, and an antidote for boredom. Who needs face-to-face interaction when you have all of your Facebook friends at your fingertips? Never satisfied, we shift restlessly when asked to put away our phones.

Give me back my smart phone!

There’s a growing movement to abandon smart phones in favor of “dumb phones.” The New York Times profiled people who still use such dumb phones, suggesting that these people live happier, more productive lives (it’s a small sample size). Author Susan Conley wrote for Huffington Post about her desire to quit her smart phone. She writes: “The sneaky thing that my Smartphones does is make me feel like every hour of every day is the absolutely most perfect time in the world to get my email. Except it’s not. It’s really time to make the red sauce. Or time to read Aidan a chapter from the Percy Jackson Series. Or time to throw a stick to the puppy.” That’s called addiction.

More troubling are the effects of smart phone usage on young people. In one study, a high school senior, Michelle Hackman, found that students separated from their phones were understimulated and easily distracted. They lacked the ability to entertain themselves. In other words, smart phones transform teenagers into zombies. Teenagers hand over control to their smart phones. To reclaim ownership of their lives, they must learn to moderate their smart phone use.

This is true, not just for teenagers, but for all of us. Dr. David Greenfield has said that computer technologies are addictive because they are psychoactive and mood altering. We sit and habitually check our messages because we wait for that one special e-mail. We wait in a perpetual state of hopefulness. To break free of this pattern, we must learn to disconnect. Disconnection, complete separation, offers our brains the relief it needs from constant connectivity and the emotional states associated with it.  I often tell myself that if I don’t want to do something, it probably means that I should do it. As much as you don’t want to disconnect, you should probably do it. Your brain will thank you.

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