Digital Distractions: Children and Adults Are Paying a Price for Their Addiction to Media Gadgets


By Catherine Lee and Tom Snyder

Imagine you are sitting in your living room, on Facebook, looking at your friend’s new photos. Old friends start to instant message you, and you have your email account open in a different window, trying to sort through spam amidst the other online chaos occuring. Your TV is on with the nightly news going on about Van der Sloot, Democrats, and the oil spill. Your cell phone rings and you pick it up, then you try to read, and send, a text message while you’re having a conversation on that same phone, all the while glancing from the corners of your eyes at the computer.

It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up this situation, but a growing body of research suggests that people are paying a mental price for their addiction to all these electronic gadgets and what’s on them.

For example, according to a June 6 article in the New York Times, businessman Kord Campbell almost missed a $1.3 million deal because all the applications and windows he had open on his computer.

The Times said Campbell has missed other important emails, burned food on the grill and failed to pick up his children because of all his email, instant messages, computer screens, and addiction to video games. He and his wife have to limit his two children’s computer time because they get too distracted and can’t hear their parents when they’re on the computer, texting or focused on their music.

In 2008, Americans consumed three times as much information each day as people did in 1960. Computer users at work change window browsers nearly 37 times an hour and visit an average of 40 sites per day.

This is one of the largest shifts to take place in human environment, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California at San Francisco says, “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do. We know already there are consequences.”

For instance, according to the Times, “Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.”

Also, new research shows that, contrary to popular opinion, multitasking does not make people more productive.

In fact, not only do heavy multitaskers have more trouble focusing and ignoring irrelevant information, they also have more stress. Furthermore, the lack of focus persists after all the electronic gadgets are shut down.

Findings from tests at Stanford University also show that multitaskers don’t do a good job at using more valuable older information because they spend too much time looking for new information. They also don’t juggle problems as well as non-multitaskers.

“The scary part is, they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking,” Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, says.

Nass is concerned that digital distraction is getting in the way of people’s interactions with one another, including their empathy for other human beings.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he adds. “It shows how much you care.”

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