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Why Address Technology Addiction, Nature Deficit Disorder, Plastic in the Ocean

October 23, 2017


“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” writes Allen Ginsberg in the first few lines of Howl.


Ginsberg was talking about heroin. But today he’d be referencing smart phone use and abuse of the internet.

What are the psychological effects on people who touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day? (Source of research) 

You probably guessed the answer: NOT GOOD.

In fact, it is so bad that a 2012 Newsweek article says that over two-thirds of phone users experience “phantom-vibration syndrome.” where they feel “their phone vibrate when in fact nothing is happening.”

In a more recent article in the Guardian, Paul Lewis reports on those in Silicon Valley alarmed by a race for human attention who say that ‘Our minds can be hijacked.’  Some of the Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.

According to the October 6, 2017 article, our use (or is it abuse?) of technology contributes toward “continuous partial attention” which severely limits people’s ability to focus, and possibly even lowers IQ: One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.

“Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says in the article. “All of the time.”

To defend himself from addictive programs, the Guardian article says that tech consultant Nit Eyal “uses a Chrome extension, called DF YouTube, “which scrubs out a lot of those external triggers”” And he recommends “Pocket Points that “rewards you for staying off your phone when you need to focus.”” At home, a timer turns off the internet router at a set time each day.

But can we unplug?

Lewis reports that Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee says no:  “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

In the 17 minute TED talk below, Harris “shares how these companies prey on our psychology for their own profit and calls for a design renaissance in which our tech instead encourages us to live out the timeline we want.”

We are being manipulated: a “Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Such granular information, Harris adds, is “a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person.”

 “The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.”

Chris Marcellino is “one of the two inventors listed on Apple’s patent for “managing notification connections and displaying icon badges.”” Now studying to be a  neurosurgeon, he says that “technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use.” Or comfort, sex, and food– reward based dopamine pathways in the brain.

According to Marcellino, “It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product,” he says. “It’s capitalism.”

In conclusion, Lewis points out that English science fiction writer Aldous Huxley warned that the threat to two biggest threats to democracy are psychological manipulation and “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Then Lewis wonders: “If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?”

Social media technology is not only a threat to our minds and our democracy, but also to our mental health. Smartphones provoke anxiety and distract us in unhealthy ways.

In an October 2017 article in the New York Times Magazine, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” Parents, therapists and schools are struggling to figure out whether helping anxious teenagers means protecting them or pushing them to face their fears” and explores the role of social media. Concerns include research that show that

hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have doubled over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall.

Stephanie Eken, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director for Rogers Behavioral Health, reports that social media is a common source of worry among highly anxious kids” while parents say their children’s digital habits including “round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.”

According to one college student, “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

According to the article, “While smartphones can provoke anxiety, they can also serve as a handy avoidance strategy.  “It was a way for me not to think about classes and college, not to have to talk to people,” he said. Jake’s parents became so alarmed that they spoke to his psychiatrist about it and took his phone away a few hours each night.”

The article quotes Jean Twenge a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations. The more Twenge “looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption.” Twenge’s recent book iGen, and  her September 2017 article in The Atlantic highlights a number of studies that connect  social media and unhappiness, anxiety and depression:

“The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” reports Twenge.

Jean Twenge’s book iGen:Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us and research is also featured in the October 20, 2017 article “How Teens Today Are Different from Past Generations: A psychologist mines big data on teens and finds many ways this generation—the “iGens”—is different from Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials” by DIANA DIVECHA and published in Greater Good. The article states that because they spend 5-6 hours online hanging out, texting, chatting, gaming, web surfing, streaming and sharing videos —

iGens have poorer emotional health thanks to new media. Twenge finds that new media is making teens more lonely, anxious, and depressed, and is undermining their social skills and even their sleep.

Twenge is clear: More than two hours a day raises the risk for serious mental health problems.

And other research shows: “Girls who spend the most time on social media are least likely to trust other girls, more likely to feel depressed and sad, and least likely to get along well with their female peers.”


None of this is new information. In a 2012 article in Newsweek Tony Doukouipil sounded the alarm in his review of recent research that suggests that the Internet “may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.

“Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”

Doukoupil continues: “In the summer of 1996, seven young researchers at MIT blurred the lines between man and computer, living simultaneously in the physical and virtual worlds. They carried keyboards in their pockets, radio-transmitters in their backpacks, and a clip-on screen in front of their eyes. They called themselves “cyborgs”—and they were freaks. But as Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, points out, “we are all cyborgs now.” This life of continuous connection has come to seem normal, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s healthy or sustainable, as technology—to paraphrase the old line about alcohol—becomes the cause of and solution to of all life’s problems.”

Even Burning Man is getting in on the idea that “we are all cyborgs now” with the 2018 theme, “I, Robot.”

The 2012 article points out that “In less than the span of a single childhood, Americans have merged with their machines, staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day, more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping. Teens fit some seven hours of screen time into the average school day; 11, if you count time spent multitasking on several devices.”

As a college teacher of mostly teens and young adults, and as the mom of a teenager, I’m worried– even if in 2010 Stanford’s Andrea Lunsford was optimistic about the impact of technology on writing by college students. Her research from 2001-2006 showed that students are writing a lot more and that texting and other internet writing is not having a deleterious effect.

Lunsford argues that it merely reflects the fact that human beings CHANGE over time: “These changes alter the very grounds of literacy as the definition, nature, and scope of writing are all shifting away from the consumption of discourse to its production across a wide range of genre and media, away from individual “authors” to participatory and collaborative partners-in- production; away from a single static standard of correctness to a situated understanding of audience and context and purpose for writing.” Writing in a Stanford University op/ed seven years ago, she lays the responsibility on teachers to provide “solid and informed instruction.”

However, it is hard to do so when students are addicted and glued to their phones, when they are texting and playing video games during class, when they feel phantom vibrations from cell phone messages that don’t exist, when they are experiencing depression and mental health issues, when they don’t make good choices about priorities, when democracy itself is threatened. This is different than doodling and day dreaming. And the research above makes an argument that the situation is much worse today than it was back before there were smartphones in the hands of almost every teen and adult.

In fact, the iPhone was released AFTER Lunsford completed this research in 2006. In the 2012 Newsweek article, Tony Doukouipil  cites a 2010 Stanford study of the iPhone habits of 200 people that “found that one in 10 users feels “fully addicted” to his or her phone. All but 6 percent of the sample admitted some level of compulsion, while 3 percent won’t let anyone else touch their phones.”

We just can’t put out phones down — even if we know it’s not good for us: Doukouipil quotes one researcher who  that the Internet is like cocaine leading to cycles of depression and mania and another says people know that their internet usage is not healthy yet they compulsively continue to use it while a third says that it encourages and even promotes insanity.

It’s gotten to the point where faculty I know bring bear canisters to class and confiscate phones, where students get asked to leave class for phone use, where faculty  investigate internet disruption devices camouflaged as salt and pepper shakers.  And this doesn’t even get at the temptation to plagiarize.

So what can we do about it?

Change the cycle. Connect with Nature, Friends, Family. 

Howl concludes with Ginsberg saying:

I’m with you in Rockland
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

In “A neuroscientist who studies decision-making reveals the most important choice you can make,” neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other’s company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical. One study of moviegoers, for instance, found the most engaging trailers all produced similar patterns in people’s brains.”

Weller cites Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, who says that “The more we study engagement, we see time and again that just being next to certain people actually aligns your brain with them,” based on their mannerisms, the smell of the room, the noise level, and many other factors, Cerf said. “This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.””

Cerf  concludes that “if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they’ll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.”

So do you hang out with others on your phones? Or are you doing activities with others or FOR others? Perhaps in NATURE?

Jane Fonda says, “I grew up believing that service is the rent you pay for life.” LA Times article by Ellen Olivier on 10/19/14 P5 titled “The Power To Help Others.”

And in this article neurosurgeon DR. VAN DER KOLK reports that  “People talk a lot about stress hormones… stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations. So it gives you that energy to stay up all night with your sick kid or to shovel snow in Minnesota and Boston and stuff like that.

What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then

the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system. But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active, and they like to help, and they like to do things, and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.

So what are you going to do?

I present to you a challenge:

  1. Try to get OUTSIDE in NATURE for 30 minutes on average a day. Watch the sunset or the moonrise or these out the stars. Go for a walk or climb a tree or get out or in the water — and leave your phone behind or at least OFF.
  2. Go on a technology diet. Turn your phone OFF at least 30 minutes before you go to bed and 30 minutes after you wake up. Even better, put yourself on an even stricter technology diet. For students: can you at least keep your phone put away while you are at school or at least during class? Can you keep your technology off or in the other room while you eat or you study?
  3. Pay attention to what you consume — particularly when it comes to single use plastic. You might consider what you consume on the internet and what you consume for food and drink in addition to the packaging it comes in. Are you getting the nourishment you need? What is the impact of your consumption on the planet?
  4. Do something. Stop spectating. Participate in a beach, river, or trail clean up. Get involved in disaster relief fundraising or other projects like this one from Burners without Borders for victims of the recent fires in the Sonoma and Napa areas. Join a bike kitchen, an environmental advocacy group, or a protest. Attend and speak at a city council meeting. Make a difference.
  5. Educate yourself about environmental issues and environmental justice. Share what you learn on social media channels. Or even better, talk with people in person during gatherings with friends and family.

And always, when possible, bring a friend along for the ride!

Can you do this? Maybe not everything all at once but at least ONE item or two or three? For a week or two or three? What about for the rest of the month? How about from now until the end of the season? Can you imagine sticking with it until the end of the year?

It’s not going to be easy — and I include myself in this. As a social media influencer and content provider, I hear the siren song of clicks, stats, and likes. Just like my students, just like my son, I want to be read, I want to be heard. But we have to do so in moderation, in balance.

I know how it is easier to stay on the couch than go for a walk. But our lives are at stake– our own and the lives of every living creature on the planet.   And I’m not exaggerating.

Please share your comments. If you’re a blogger, please discuss this topic on your blog and share your link so we can read what you have to say.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2017 3:22 pm

    do you realise that you are contradicting, you talk about being unplugged (blog is not being unplugged). nature deficite disorder and blogging are opposing goals. just sayingxxoo

  2. October 31, 2017 11:06 pm

    absolutely! how do we find balance? we can’t escape being plugged in — that is how our society functions! but how can we not be addicted? how can we find balance? it is a HUGE struggle for me! but it felt GREAT to be outside teaching and hiking all day today so that is one way!


  1. VIRTUAL INSANITY | How web lies and social media validation are warping our lives|VC Reporter | Southland Publishing

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