As a freshman, I regularly ate breakfast at Centennial Hall. In the dining hall, I would witness students who were preoccupied by a laptop, MP3 player and cell phone, despite being surrounded by friends. It required obnoxiously loud screams and boisterous hand gestures to rouse them from their technological stupor. Even after catching their attention, they were unwilling to communicate and quickly returned to the digital domain.
This experience is a manifestation of “the screen invasion,” a term coined by Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times. The term describes the ubiquity of technological gadgets constantly inundating us with information. Significantly, our constant use of technology is influencing us in unforeseen ways. Current research is uncovering both its cognitive and behavioral effects.
Technology has effectively become a necessity for anyone who wishes to survive in contemporary society and it certainly does have its benefits. But does it make us more productive? Sure it can – if you’re careful.
According to a 2009 Stanford University study, truly productive multitasking is far more challenging than previously thought. The problem, said the study, is that “processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition.”
This is because the more one multitasks, the more difficult it becomes to filter out irrelevant information.
With our cell phones, iPods, laptops, video games and Kindles – various mediums of entertainment and communication – researchers at the Institut National de la Sant et de la Recherche Mdicale in Paris, France, have found that we may not be able to effectively multitask at more than two tasks.
Yet, multitasking is only the tip of this microchip iceberg. The effects are even more drastic. A 2008 study from the University of California found that acute stress, which is experienced when interrupted by one’s gadgets, results in the release of corticotropin, a stress hormone that severely impedes our ability to learn and form memories.
This finding is magnified by our desire to constantly check our digital devices. As Richtel states, when you check your gadget, “you get what (scientists) call a dopamine squirt.”
“You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you’re getting that more and more and more and more,” he said to NPR. “Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response.”
The reality is that technology in our life is inevitable. However, rather than completely disconnecting, we should be creating downtime that allows us to relax and not think about the buzz in our pocket or the e-mail in our inbox. Perhaps it’s as simple as sitting down and enjoying your breakfast without any distractions.
Julian Switala is a student at the University of Minneapolis.