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Published: Wednesday, 7/4/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Modern society suffers from 'iDisorder,' professor says

BY ROB KUZNIA
(TORRANCE, CALIF.) DAILY BREEZE

Know anybody who can't make it through dinner without checking his smart phone? Who has a tendency to boast a little on Facebook? Who is made a little melancholy by social media but still can't pull herself away?

Is that person you?

A psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is gaining prominence for his argument that more and more of us are exhibiting signs of what he has coined an iDisorder. That is, we are, through the use of technology devices, manifesting symptoms of narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, social phobia, hypochondria, and other psychiatric maladies.

The professor, Larry Rosen -- whose visibility as a "psychology of technology" expert is on the rise -- says that in this age of hyper-connectivity, most people see a little of themselves in at least some of the telltale symptoms.

The good news, he says, is there are remedies -- simple solutions that don't require disconnecting and trying to live like it's 1985. (Or aiming a handgun at your daughter's laptop and shooting it full of holes, as one fed-up man actually did earlier this year in North Carolina.)

"What I'm on my high horse about is focus," Mr. Rosen said in a recent phone interview, while sitting with a laptop in the waiting room of his auto mechanic -- an irony that wasn't lost on him. "This is the crux of my talk. I'll show you how distracted you are, and how we can get you to focus better."

Mr. Rosen has been a professor at CSU Dominguez Hills for decades. But in the past couple of years he's become an international go-to expert on the topic of social media -- and its effect on our brains.

His new book, iDisorder -- co-authored by fellow CSU Dominguez Hills professors Nancy Cheever and L. Mark Carrier -- recently received a favorable review in the New York Times.

Mr. Rosen is frequently quoted in national media outlets, and he clearly welcomes the attention. His Web site includes a list of media interviews he's done this year, and it isn't short. In May and June, the credits include the New York Times, Businessweek, Boston Globe, Sydney Morning Herald, and PBS -- and that barely scratches the surface.

The headlines can themselves be anxiety inducing.

"Are We Addicted to Facebook? It's Complicated!" "Mobile Devices: A Constant Craving That May Be Changing Our Personalities." "Do You Suffer From These 4 Tech Addictions?" "Too Much Technology for Kids is Bad for Development, Says New Study."

Central to Mr. Rosen's premise is the idea that technology doesn't make us crazy, but often exacerbates our crazy tendencies, or even triggers their development.

Logging on to your laptop the minute you get home from work every day could be a warning sign for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Posting a dozen daily status updates on Facebook that make frequent use of the words "I'' or "me" could be a byproduct of narcissism.

Writing updates that use more swear words, fewer positive-emotion words, and more religious words correlates to depressive behavior. Missing meetings or deadlines at work because one has been surfing the Web raises a red flag for ADHD. (One study says more than three-quarters of computer-based task switching focuses on distracting, rather than work-related, activities.)

According to the book, each successive generation generally reports higher and higher levels of anxiety when separated from their technologies. With increased anxiety comes increased usage, and ever more opportunities to develop iDisorders.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rosen's own research has indicated that nobody -- regardless of their age or gender -- is really all that good at multitasking. Although some forms of multitasking are easier than others.

"The trick is to know when to pay attention to one thing at a time and when it is OK to switch from one thing to another," he said.

Far from believing technology is bad, Mr. Rosen is an early adopter.

In 1984, while an assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, he showed the students a big computer in his classroom; he informed them they would be using it to do their statistics. The punch-card machines were large, bulky and foreboding.

"The students freaked out," he said. "They were hesitant and scared of it."

He's the first to acknowledge he checks his Facebook account every half-hour at a minimum.

Mr. Rosen, 62, is a proponent of the tech break. But his idea of implementing such a thing is a little counterintuitive. For instance, in his classroom, Mr. Rosen encourages students not to put their cell phones away, but to take them out and use them for one minute at the beginning of class. Then, he instructs students to silence the gadgets and place them face-down on their desks.

"That way you can see it," he said. "The phone becomes a stimulus to the brain: Don't worry, you will get to check me in less than 15 minutes."

He promotes using this technique at work, or the dinner table, or while trying to finish homework.

"It's designed to get people to stop being distracted and focus," he said.

On a related note, Mr. Rosen advises people to wait a couple of minutes before sending a written email -- a technique he refers to as an "e-waiting period."

"I've sent emails I regret," he said. "Then I send five more emails trying to apologize or straighten it out."

As for whether all this technology is, on the whole, good or bad for society, Mr. Rosen says it's a wash.

On the positive side, he said, Facebook -- despite encouraging narcissistic behavior -- in some ways promotes a kinder, gentler society.

"That 'like' button is amazingly powerful," he said. "People feel amazingly reinforced when 40 people like what they have posted."

But he also believes there is truth to the idea that the proliferation of social media is taking a toll on our propensity for deep thinking.

Ultimately, the question of whether the digital revolution is good or bad is irrelevant; it's here, just like the telephone, the TV, or the automobile.

The more relevant question, according to Mr. Rosen: How do you handle the onslaught without losing your mind?



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