It’s October 2015 and I am sitting in the Glasgow Hydro Arena watching the World Gymnastics Championships. On the floor is a 19 year old Cuban gymnast, performing at a jaw dropping level. He’s so good, he goes on to take the silver medal. I can only imagine how his training facilities in Cuba compares with those of wealthier nations. Also performing that day from Japan, is the six times World Champion and, for many, the greatest male gymnast of all time, Kohei Uchimura. One row in front of me sits a family of four. A boy aged around nine or ten and his six year old sister are sandwiched between their mother and father. Whilst years of hard training is being displayed on the apparatus, the boy is so hopelessly addicted to his computer game and Instagram feed that he cannot lift his eyes to watch the gymnasts. Surely, either his mother or father will give him a nudge and say opportunities to watch these spectacular feats of human performance live are few and far between? The next World Championships after all are in Montreal and after that in Qatar. Well, they may have done so, had they had noticed. Whilst his mother constantly scrolls Facebook, his father is looking at his iPad browsing cameras – presumably to photograph amazing things, like world class gymnastics. It is only the little girl, not yet addicted, who has the mental space (and corresponding internal peace) to watch the event. I am left wondering what these athletes have to do to get people to just look. The gymnasts swing and release around the high bar, some of the audience gasp, the boy looks at photographs of car door handles and trainers.
If you think you can be on your device and pay attention, consider this. The TV camera would pan around the stadium accompanied by a cheeky jingle looking for people on their devices who were not paying attention. Such is the all-consuming nature of tech that when the camera caught someone, their face would appear on the gigantic screen, the size of a side of a building. The entire stadium, thousands of people, would burst into laughter. The person on their device didn’t even notice. If you don’t have the available bandwidth to notice an 80 ft x 100 ft picture of your face and 9,000 people laughing, then what else is slipping past you? Time after time the same thing happened. Is it any wonder Facebook Mum or iPad Dad did not notice something as relatively subtle as their son missing the once in a lifetime experience? Interestingly, both parents would hide their devices as the cameras panned around, alerted by the accompanying music rather than by their rapt attention. Standing by their tech habit was clearly a little uncomfortable for them.
It’s not just the inability to watch an event or have a tech free lunch, alarmingly, people are steadily losing the ability to read a book and all the richness that goes with that. A skill that, just a generation ago, would have been viewed as so essential, as such a right that it would have constituted a colossal failure of any education system to be without it, is now slipping away from people.
Writing in the Harvard Summer Review, Josiah Wartak, a voracious reader as a child describes this decline. “As a child, local library summer reading contests were a breeze. Ten books over the summer? Try fifty. I even complained to my parents about a dearth of books at home.”
“When I was fifteen I got my first computer. The iPhone came out when I was sixteen. My book reading ground to a halt. Instead, I endlessly surfed sites, consuming ever shorter morsels of content.”
“I would skim, skip to the ending, or simply stop reading the book altogether. As I stopped reading, my vocabulary stopped expanding, my verbal syntax weakened, my writing skills vanished and my ability to concentrate disappeared.”
“Soon I was noticing that not only did I no longer read books, I was no longer able to read,” explains Wartak.
WHAT’S DRIVING EXCESSIVE TECH USE?
Technology adds incredible convenience and flexibility to our lives, but so does a kettle. If someone were constantly walking backward and forwards compulsively fiddling with the kettle you would think they had a problem and you’d be right. Use the kettle and when you are done, walk away right? So why can’t people just use their tech to make the call or do the transaction and then set it aside? There are two main reasons:
1. They are stuck in a Dopamine Loop.
It’s obvious we are neurologically designed for our reward centres to respond to finding and consuming food but what has been demonstrated is that those reward centres respond to information. By exciting mid brain neurons, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the brain’s pleasure centres. It’s easy to see why in the past having more information about food or shelter gave us an evolutionary advantage. Now dopamine is being juiced by updates on a friend’s patio furniture, boring tweet or general compulsive scrolling. Dopamine is a major player in reward motivated behaviour and its release is powerful. It forms the basis of addictions to nicotine, gambling, sugar, cocaine and heroin by increasing neuronal dopamine activity. Whether you are checking emails, seeing if people like your posts or whatever your jam is, that dopamine surge, like a lab mouse after the cheese, keeps you going back for more.
If we go back to our hopelessly addicted ten year old on his video game at the gymnastics tournament, we can see from a neurological point of view his midbrain will be lit up like a Christmas tree. Gaming manufacturers talk openly about this loop. When players succeed at a game, they are rewarded with new content and a release of dopamine. The player then wants to play with the new material and so they stay in the loop. Asking someone used to this level of dopamine release to pay attention to something that will take time to produce the reward – the end of a book or the outcome of an event, is like asking a drug addict to relax with a glass of sherry instead of some crystal meth. It’s too boring to go without a dopamine squirt for that long.
Fear of missing out is a huge driver of constant smartphone use. Worrying about missing out on insider jokes, gossip, latest ‘news’, alerts and updates mean many people are physically unable to be away from their phone.
“We see this anxiety in the majority of smartphone users who feel uncomfortable if they are not in direct contact with their phones — and their many electronic connections — 24/7/365. A dead battery and no charger can bring upon a panic attack,” says Larry Rosen of California State University.
“In a survey of 700 college students, those who were more anxious about being apart from their phones, used their phones more during a typical day, and woke up to check their phones more often at night. The latter two results — more daily smartphone use and more nighttime awakenings — led directly to sleep problems.”
One of the central pillars of health, sleep is a big loser in the age of tech. Important for health, fat loss and mental regeneration, it often takes a back seat to Insta scrolling as blue light emitted from devices adversely affects melatonin release.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School found reading from an e-book meant it took an additional ten minutes to fall asleep, compared to reading a paper book. Ten minutes does not sound like much, but subjects experienced 90 minutes of delayed melatonin onset. Not only that, only half the amount of melatonin was released and rapid eye movement sleep was reduced. So what? – you may ask.
During deep sleep, synapses (the points at which a nervous impulse passes from one neuron to another) are ‘refreshed’. Toxins are ‘swept up’ preventing the build-up of beta amyloid plaque and you do not want a build-up of beta amyloid plaque.
“In the last five years, studies have found that people who were suffering from poor sleep patterns had a build-up of beta amyloid plaque in their brains. Beta amyloid plaque, a sticky mixture of proteins, collects in synapses. It is also a key characteristic in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Susan Skakel of the University of Cambridge Medicine blog.
Amazingly, your brain shrinks at night as synapses disappear to help integrate that day’s events into your memory. Irrelevant details are deleted which allows your brain to process new information the next day. As the synapses are ‘reset’ and no longer saturated, you are now ready to learn again.
- Set a tech curfew – do not use tech one hour before bedtime
- Take TV out of the bedroom
- Make sure blue light is not emitting from any device after 6pm by going to justgetflux.com and resetting your screens
- Remove all devices that have the potential to disrupt your sleep from the bedroom
- Keep the device 14 inches from your face
DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
Could our constant information seeking now be leading to an evolutionary disadvantage? With so much information available, the overloaded and distracted person is fast becoming a weak link. Complete lack of awareness of your surroundings is an evolutionary liability to any tribe. In a London railway station, I saw a man in his 40s on his Blackberry walk straight into a blind man with a white stick. How many times do people bump into you in the street whilst they are scrolling? In the wild, their babies would be eaten but, hey, at least they’d be up to date on Twitter – before they stepped right into a crocodile infested swamp whilst texting that is. DWD (driving whilst distracted) whether texting or hitting the ‘like’ button on Facebook is the modern day equivalent. People grossly underestimate both how distracted they really are and how bad their driving has become as a result.
The road safety charity Brake explains, “Many drivers allow themselves to be distracted because they believe they are in control, and do not believe distraction poses a significant risk. However, research shows drivers are not able to correctly estimate how distracted they are and 98% are not able to divide their attention without a significant deterioration in driving performance.”
“People respect that drinking and driving is dangerous,” said Matt Boeve, whose wife, Andrea, was killed by a distracted driver in 2014. “Now, we just have to know that phones are dangerous too and take responsibility for our actions.”
Of course, adults may not be as interested in social media insider jokes – though don’t rule it out – but where they do pay a price is in shredded focus and an increasingly fractured, disengaged family life. Alert presence and sharp focus are now human super powers that put you way ahead of the game. If you have them, cultivate them – who can compete with you? You have an open goal in life, I guarantee the goalkeeper is on Snapchat. Have you been able to read this article without checking a device? You may still be in the game.
Flitting from this article to alerts? You won’t make the super focused élite but you are not alone. A goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. According to a Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadian adults, the human attention span has been shredded to just eight seconds – less than a goldfish. A study at California Irvine showed that office workers get only eleven minutes of focused work at a stretch. Self interrupting is the main culprit as people switch between devices and computers around 21 times an hour.
Sadly, Clifford Nass of Stanford University thinks the big risk of constant tech use is that people no longer engage with each other. We have all seen numerous examples of couples in coffee shops both on their phones, families all on tech at the same time and groups of friends all on devices – if we can look up from our phone that is. These people are no longer talking and engaging with each other which is a fundamental part of being human. Ironically, although fear of missing out is a huge driver of tech use, we fail to see how we lose out on the depth, texture and richness in life. We no longer see all the colours, the details, the signs and the nuances in the world preferring to just skim the surface instead. This leaves us unrefreshed and undernourished as people, always searching for more to satisfy that self created hunger. Life without depth is exhausting, there is a frailty to it. The world lays a feast at our table but like a rat taking cocaine in preference to food, we ignore it in favour of more dopamine. By their thirties, many people end up fried and fractured, unable to draw on relationships as both partners find themselves cooked and overwhelmed from years of relentless, but self inflicted, overload.
All of nature fundamentally understands rest. Trees don’t bear constant fruit, animals hibernate, buds lay dormant and a generation ago we would leave our office, disconnect, read a book on the train, rest, eat nourishing food and sleep deeply. Now we are checking, replying and monitoring all evening, some poor people can’t even have dinner without wondering if their salad should go on Instagram. We are turning our minds and our focus into coleslaw and everything else into a photo opportunity. The only relief many have starts with the pop of the wine bottle cork. The alcohol disturbs our sleep, we check our tech, disrupt our melatonin and then have a large serving of amyloid plaques on the side with the ‘brainslaw.’ It’s a wonder people don’t look 107.
“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” says Nass. “It shows how much you care.”
“We are at an inflection point,” he concludes. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”