Technology: Making it work
Technological advances in recent years have been staggering. These days it’s hard to even conjure up a memory of what life was like in the days before the smart phone. We can’t envisage our lives without them and yet despite the distinct advantages and improvements they provide, they are many treacherous effects that are only beginning to come to light. Not for one second am I suggesting that we should rewind, even if it were a realistic option. Smartphones are here to stay and will only continue to get more advanced with time. It is our responsibility as consumers to become more astute in our usage by creating an awareness of the negative consequences they bring and taking ownership of our technological dependency. One guaranteed way to improve your overall life satisfaction and outlook is to become more discerning with your screen usage. I’m going to discuss some of the myriad of ramifications they have but first I’ll address the obvious question. If we are aware of the associated dangers, why do we continue to utilise them to such an extent?
One of the core reasons is convenience. Having the entire internet in the palm of your hand, having the ability to organise your life without moving from your chair, having entertainment on tap at all times. We are becoming more reliant on technology on a daily basis. We don’t sit well with boredom or having to listen to our thoughts. Having a continuous source of distraction means we no longer have to hear the voices from within.
A less obvious but more sinister element to the draw is the addictive element. To understand a little bit more about this phenomenon, we need to first understand a little about the dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in many critical brain functions such as mood, attention, motivation, thinking, moving, sleeping, seeking and rewards for successful social behvaiours. Historically, it was associated with the experience of pleasure, therefore creating motivation to seek out sex, food or drugs. However more recently, researchers suggest that it is linked to seeking out what we desire and increasing arousal and goal-oriented behaviours. It is also essential for survival in that it drives curiosity and fuels a search for knowledge. It is suggested that its actually the opioid system that generates our feelings of pleasure and that these two systems work in conjunction with one another. A want or craving is created which drives us to seek. When we like what we find, we experience satiety or pleasure, and the want subsides temporarily. The dopamine system is dominant meaning we seek or crave more than we experience satisfaction. This evolutionary mechanism enhances survival, as it results in the anticipation always being greater than the reward. App creators have prayed on this mechanism; hence the reason our newsfeeds are endless. And it explains how we tap into one app to check it, and sixty minutes later find ourselves having moved through several different newsfeeds numerous times without actually taking anything in. We are hooked on the search possibility of a reward. The occasional, unpredictable ping of our notifications excites us enough to reinforce our quest for what we think we are looking for. In laboratory experiments, addiction to dopamine hits have been created artificially using electrodes on the receptors of rat’s brains. Every time they pushed on a lever; they received a hit similar to what we experience with our smartphone applications. Before long, male rats showed a preference for the lever over a female rat in heat and female rats showed preference for the lever over caring for her cubs. Now as a mother to a toddler, I can understand the latter option. An occasional shot of pleasure over caring for a very adorable but equally volatile toddler sounds a pretty an attractive offer. However, the implication is that the stimulation of your dopamine system overrides the innate drive for connection. It’s clearly apparent in our interactions. You only have to walk into a restaurant or pub to see couples under the guise of spending quality time together but glued to their relative pieces of technology. We are progressively showing preference for the cyber world we create on our social media platforms to our reality.
Our capabilities for meaningful connection are being compromised due to our diminishing social skills. Meaningful engagement involves active listening, presence, attention and patience and tolerance for a reply that may not be that we desire. The unremitting list of potential contacts on our phones mean that we can simply move onto another option if we have too long to wait for a response or feel unhappy with the one we were given. We no longer resolve conflict healthily and consequently evade the personal growth and vulnerability that comes with speaking your truth and hearing another person out. Passive aggression is rampant. Getting a venomous, self-righteous message across using an indirect, public post is far easier than maturely rectifying an issue face to face. Our emotional resilience is weakened as our sense of worth is at the mercy of the numbers of likes we receive on a post. Conversely, when are feelings have been hurt, instead of tolerating, transcending and accepting, we instead look for alternative validation by posting a photo we feel will gain the approval of others. We put our cyber popularity ahead of our self-respect and authenticity. Our cognitive abilities are also in jeopardy.
Our attention span, problem solving, memory and emotional resilience seem to be taking a hit. We are continuously being bombarded with stimuli, options and information which has us too fatigued to make the more important decisions in our lives. Our relationships are suffering; there is a pandemic of loneliness despite there being more communication technology and platforms available than ever before. And research is indicating that paradoxically, social media increases a sense of loneliness and disconnect. Even the mere presence of a face-down phone on a table negatively on the relational quality of an interaction, reducing the closeness, intimacy, perceptions of empathy and trust between two people. We feel rejected when our partner chooses their phone over us, either directly or indirectly. The number of clients that speak of the distress they experience when they can see their partner has been online but has made no direct contact with them is significant in both genders. Similarly, the ambiguity of text conversations leaves the door wide open for misinterpretation and potential offence. When we are presented with neutral information such as a benign thumbs up, our interpretation is at the mercy of how we feel at that particular moment. If our mood is good, we tend not to think too much of it. If the mood isn’t quite so buoyant, we project our feelings and can feel dejected by the lack of meaningful sincerity or content. Our acceptance of our partner is also frequently at the mercy of our technology. We may be frustrated with the speed, or lack thereof, of their response to our messages. Our sense of relationship satisfaction can be altered in a split second. One moment sitting there feeling content with each other and the next, spotting a post from a friend which triggers a sense of things being inadequate. A real bone of contention in relationships is the interaction a partner has with members of the opposite sex. Sexting, indiscretion apps, pornography are just a few of the areas which cause confusion, betrayal, pain and rejection. Clearly, the usage cannot be blamed on the phones themselves. We are autonomous beings. However, our ability to resist the lure of getting something potentially better than what we have seems to be too much of a challenge for many. We compare ourselves negatively to the highlight reels of others, forgetting the farcical, artificial and superficial nature of the content we are looking at. And yet, phones, tablets and laptops are going nowhere and are set to become exponentially more advanced.
However, there’s a radical solution available to the potential hazards of your various pieces of technology and the accompanying applications. Use them less and use them wisely. Our ability to remain relatively unaffected lies in our capacity to exert self-control and discipline. Ironically, there are applications being created to assist us in doing so as willpower seems to be a another dying attribute. Granted there are applications with some incredibly helpful features to assist maintaining beneficial habits like mindfulness and meditation yet again, we are relying on technology to prompt what our brains could easily do. As mentioned, technology is here to stay. Yet awareness of the impact it has on us is critical in minimising the potential damage it can do.
Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex