Wired Worries

Are hyper-connected kids facing digital disorders?

By Kathleen Kelleher 09/01/2012

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When the family iPad disappears from sight, Keli Christy goes directly to what she and her husband call “the command post.” That's where their daughter Makenzie is often stationed—amidst a technological arsenal that includes a 
laptop, a desktop, a smartphone, the family iPad and sometimes even an iPod Touch—orchestrating her life at warp speed. “She sits there with her cellphone, her laptop and her desktop [all] going,” says Christy, who lives in South Pasadena with her husband, Sean, and daughters. “One is logged onto Twitter, one is logged onto Facebook and one is getting text messages. It is awful. I don’t have that much time in the day to manage that much media.”
 
So goes the life of today’s teenager, for whom constant connectivity is the norm.
 
Like most “digital natives,” Makenzie Christy multitasks seamlessly between homework and a constant stream of digital pings. The 14-year-old South Pasadena High School honor student has her own Twitter feed (her parents are followers) and texts about 10,000 messages a month. Once, when all her technological devices were confiscated for insolence, she demonstrated an impressive technological IQ. “This child figured out a way to text us through my husband’s Xbox somehow,” says her ad exec mom. “There are so many ways they can engage wireless that they will find a way. So to punish her now, the whole router has to leave the house.”
 
Makenzie’s digital dexterity is not unusual, as evidenced by a spate of recent studies: Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 71⁄2 hours a day using electronic devices, according to a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report. Half of American teenagers ages 12 through 17 send more than 60 text messages a day, the Pew Research Center found, with older teenage girls the most prolific, sending about 100 a day. About 41 percent of teens said they were addicted to their cellphones, according to a June report by Common Sense Media (CSM), a nonprofit that studies technology’s effects on youth. More than half of children under 8 in this country now have access to an iPhone, iPad or touch-screen device, and a majority of teens say social media has a “positive impact on their social and emotional well-being,” CSM found.
 
Technology has enhanced learning and education in previously unimaginable ways (iPads are used in schools to facilitate learning), but parents, educators, researchers and psychologists are concerned about how all this technology is impacting the psychological development of children and adolescents. Indeed, the term “Internet Use Disorder” will be included for the first time in the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM 5), the American Psychiatric Association's list of recognized mental ailments. Larry Rosen, psychology department chair at Cal State Dominguez Hills, argues in a new book that heavy users of digital devices exhibit symptoms that mimic common psychological disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), narcissistic personality disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. “Children live in this world where the technology is never off, their [smart]phone is never off and they even sleep with it,” says Rosen, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us (Palgrave/Macmillan; May 2012). “This fosters a very short attention span, and not just in kids. You can get about three to five minutes of focus before your attention is directed to technology. All the research [findings] are consistent, spanning middle-school students to medical-school students to people in the work world. That is our reality.”
 
It's a reality some parents address, often in exasperation, by taking away a teenager’s wireless mobile device (what Rosen calls “WMDs”). I, for one, snatched my daughter Maddy’s iPhone away after opening her bedroom door to see how her homework was coming along. She was sitting on her bed in a digital vortex, flanked by her iPhone and iPad, the computer screen open to a couple of windows. Her friend Hannah’s face floated in the screen’s corner in live video chat mode. All the while, her iPhone pinged with text messages and her iPad was open to a Facebook friend’s page.
Yet she was “studying” for an honors biology test.
 
All this obsessive multitasking is producing what seems aptly described as “popcorn brain” by David Levy, a University of Washington Information School professor. It's a brain hyper-trained for the speed and stimulation of constant electronic multitasking, making the slower, real-time pace of corporeal life—which may include studying for a biology test—far less exciting. Will seizing the iPhone and iPad and limiting her to one screen help?
 
Rosen is not so sure. “Even if you take away her smartphone and her laptop, she will interrupt from inside of her head,” explains Rosen. “They are constantly wondering if someone texted me, or who called me.” That was the crux of a study on focus conducted by Rosen and his research team, who observed nearly 300 middle-school, high-school and university students studying in their own home environment for 15 minutes. Students lasted just three minutes before their cellphone or laptop derailed their concentration (as also happened with medical students and computer programmers). Study participants and thousands more students told researchers they could not resist responding to the plethora of beeps, vibrations and flashes pulsing from their digital devices.
 
The impulse to react immediately to a cellphone ping stems in part from a behavioral addiction to novelty, says Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA. The brain craves immediate gratification, and the stimulation from each digital connection releases a squirt of dopamine, activating the pleasure center, he explains. Even without the devices’ vibrations, lights or pings, students said they were distracted by constantly wondering whether friends had liked a Facebook post or responded to a text message or email. Some even experienced “phantom vibration” when the phone was actually still. Most surprising, says Rosen, was that kids who checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute period studied also had lower overall grades. “There is a lot of anxiety about what they are missing, what MTV has called ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO,” says Rosen, and that anxiety itself is distracting. 
 
Students who could ignore the digital call for sustained periods had better concentration and higher overall academic achievement. 
 
Rosen found that students can better focus on their work by setting a timer for 15 minutes and placing their smartphones out of reach and upside down. Students focus until the timer rings, then take a “tech break” and check their phones. Gradually, focus time is lengthened between tech breaks, but the longest students could stay focused sans a technology check was about 30 minutes. 
 
While texting in school is generally forbidden and most schools prohibit students from even having their cellphones out of their backpacks, many students boast about being able to text behind their back, through their pockets and under the desk. This happens in class, during reading time and lectures. More than a few parents check their cellphone records to see if their teenagers are texting during class (or even the middle of the night). “My message is that if you are going to be distracted, then let me teach you when to be distracted and when not to be distracted,” Rosen says.
The overuse of technology is also altering the social behavior of teenagers and young adults, adds Small, author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (HarperCollins; 2008). “I think we have to teach people how to be human,” he says. “Teens are losing their human contact skills and their face-to-face skills.” Some adolescents prefer virtual interactions to in-the-flesh exchanges and may even prefer text messaging to talking on the phone. But communication is more complex and nuanced than what can be expressed in an email or text. Messages can be misconstrued and miscommunication is common. Some studies show a correlation between Internet multitasking and an inability to read human emotions.
 
“Now when we are communicating through devices, we miss out on emotions as contextual cues,” Rosen says. “All we can do is make a guess, and what we guess often is what we want to be true. The only way to get better [at human interaction] is by getting more practice at it.”
 
Parents do need to set limits for their children’s use of digital technology. Of course, an idea that’s good in theory doesn’t always work in practice. “I see Paige sleeping in her bed with all that stuff around her and I think of all the light coming from the screen onto her face,” South Pasadena Realtor Drea Valentine says of her 16-year-old daughter. “I tell her not to sleep with her cellphone near her bed. I tell her, ‘Get that laptop off your lap.’ But she doesn’t listen to me.”
 
With social networking apps making children easy targets and bullying prevalent on social networking sites, it’s certainly reasonable for parents to want more control over their children’s online life. Many parents demand that their children “friend” them on Facebook and divulge passwords to cellphones and Facebook pages. They oversee verbal exchanges and catch inappropriate postings of compromising photos or videos. My son and daughter refused to friend me after we discussed the perils of Facebook. So I am guilty (though not proud) of having looked at their Facebook pages when they walked away from their computer without logging off. I have accepted that they are responsible for their online safety. Mostly they tolerate me talking to them about technological issues,  as though I am illiterate and “Oh, isn’t it cute, look at Mom try to engage.” But parents like the Christys are resolute about demanding passwords. “We feel that there are so many ways things could go wrong because she is so social that we have to stay on it,” says Keli Christy, whose younger daughter Kaytlin is 7. “We just do spot checks.”
 
Parents should stay tuned to what their children are doing on social networking sites, Rosen and Small advise, and build trust so that when there is a problem, children will talk to their parents about it. As for monitoring devices, both Small and Rosen say teens will figure out a way to work around it. Perhaps the best thing parents can do is talk about what is appropriate and inappropriate content. It is also worth discussing people who perhaps should not be connecting to a child or teenager. 
 
The latest trends in technology, applications and websites can be a mystery to parents whose children master them seemingly by instinct. My 19-year-old son chided me like a schoolteacher for “not listening” when he explained how to access notes from an e-book I had read on my iPad. I had to explain to him that it is so foreign to me that I need him to show me more than once, the way one would repeat foreign words to a non-native speaker. His impatience was jolting.
 
As for the Christys, they are working on helping their daughter lead a balanced life. Dinnertime is a “no cellphone” zone, and the device is not to be used after 10 p.m. Like many teens who report that Facebook has improved their emotional and social well-being, Makenzie has harnessed social media constructively, posting what inspires her and staying connected to distant family and friends. “I love that she can keep those close bonds with friends and family alive [through social media],” says Keli Christy. “It has been a lot easier for her to cope, knowing that she has face time and can chat with them. 

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