50 years ago, the Poor People's Campaign advocated for economic justice for poor Americans. What does that fight look like today?
A growing number of people are contemplating “digital suicide” — disconnecting from Facebook and social media to get a break from all-consuming devices. Tech writer Paul Miller tried it: he gave up his smartphone and the Internet for a year to see if it would make him a better person. We hear what it was like, and how you can take meaningful but less drastic steps to dial back your digital obsession.
- Paul Miller Senior Editor, The Verge
- Larry Rosen Professor of Psychology, California State University, Dominguez Hills; author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
- Patricia Wallace Senior Director for Online Programs at the Center for Talented Youth, Johns Hopkins University; Author, "The Psychology of the Internet" (Cambridge) and "The Internet in the Workplace" (Cambridge)
Finding Paul Miller
For 365 days, Paul Miller disconnected from the Internet. We’d like to tell you it was an idyllic journey of self-discovery, but that isn’t quite the truth. On the eve of Paul’s return, we follow him on a road trip as he prepares for his return and takes a look back at the last twelve months.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to disconnect your Internet, turn off your Wi-Fi and throw out your Smartphone to unplug from the relentless flood of social media and emails and text messages? One New York writer did just that for a whole year.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILike many of us, he wanted to see what life would be like without the constant pressure to reply, to respond, to react. Would he have time to read books and see friends? Would he discover a different person inside his tech shell? If the thought of unplugging like that gives you hives, don't worry, not everyone needs to stop cold turkey. Psychologists say we just need to learn to control our obsession to dial back the urge to check our digital devices 24/7.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis Tech Tuesday setting boundaries for yourself to reduce Internet overload. Joining me in studio is Patricia Wallace, senior director for online programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book "The Psychology of the Internet." Patricia Wallace, good to see again. Thank you for joining us.
MS. PATRICIA WALLACEOh, it's my pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from San Diego is Larry Rosen. He's a professor of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills and author of the book "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us." Larry Rosen, thank you for joining us.
PROF. LARRY ROSENThank you for having me on your show.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Are you obsessed with checking Facebook and Twitter text messages? Have you ever tried to unplug for a day, a week, even an hour? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or email to email@example.com. Larry, talk about what motivates us to stay connected 24/7. You said it's not pleasure but rather anxiety that drives this online obsession.
ROSENRight. What we're starting to find in all of our research is we used to think just like people playing videogames get a little squirt of dopamine in their brain that they would interpret as pleasure. We used to think that checking in with your technology all day long, checking your email, checking your texts, getting on Facebook was about pleasure. Well, it turns out it's not. It turns out mostly what it is, is about reducing the anxiety and the fear, literally, of feeling as though you are missing out.
ROSENYou are the last one to know. And so we're finding from our work that most young people -- by young people, I mean people who are teenagers and young adults -- check in with their social media and their Smartphone every 15 minutes or less. And if they can't, they get highly anxious.
NNAMDIYou've found that Facebook is a predictor for both depression and personality disorders related to this fear of missing out.
ROSENIt's sort of interesting it's -- we went into a study assuming that use of technology was going to predict symptoms of psychological disorders, and it did, but not in the way we expect it. Yes, being on Facebook does predict the more time you're on Facebook, the more likely you'll have symptoms of, say, narcissism, which is not surprising since Facebook is a lot about me, me, me, anyway.
ROSENBut having more Facebook friends actually predicts fewer symptoms of both mild depression, dysthymia, and major depression. And I thought that was a very interesting result because what it suggest is having social media friends, not necessarily personal friends but people you can speak to about your troubles, about your concerns at any time of the day or night that that helps ameliorate your depression symptoms.
NNAMDIWell, what happens if you ask a lot of people to friend you and get rejected?
ROSENWell, that's an interesting question because that does happen. You're right. And I suspect that what that does is it feeds more into some of the other issues, some of the other psychological disorders and would make you feel worst, would make you potentially feel like being a bit more anti-social, trying to be a bit more narcissistic and bragging about yourself to make yourself look a bit better to those people.
ROSENBut I think in the long run that we're finding that that social media in general and particularly Facebook and Twitter are having complicated effects on people's psyches.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in finding out how much you suffer from fear of missing out, you can find out by taking the quiz that you'll find on our website, kojoshow.org. Pat Wallace, you work with gifted middle school and high school students in that program at Johns Hopkins University. How do they view their mobile devices and their ability or their need to stay connected?
WALLACEOur students are technologically quite savvy, most of them, and they -- and many of them are -- looks like they were born with a Smartphone in their hand and a keyboard in the other. They are quite attached to these devices, both psychologically and for their own academic motivations as well. They're increasingly, for example, taking online courses using an iPad or a mobile device.
WALLACENow, the remarks about the social networks and the Facebook and Twitter are key, though, because when we look at students -- our gifted students who are on Facebook, they have other issues such as extensive multitasking in their homework. And what they need to do is to find and what we try to help them with is to try to find ways to better manage their time so that they're not constantly interrupted with notifications and updates from their friends and so forth.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. We'll start with James in Fairfax, Va. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESHi. Thanks, Kojo, for having me on.
JAMESYeah. So this is actually a situation that happened with me. I went to a period early on in this academic semester where I had become totally addicted to all kinds of different social media -- I mean Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, you name it. And it got to the point where I realized that it was having a big negative impact on my academic and social life because I was busy checking this stuff when I could be doing other more productive or fun things.
JAMESAnd so I actually went on like a spree of just locking these sites or like logging myself out and leave my accounts on them. And since then, it's actually helped a lot. I've been forced more or less to actually study or go out with my friends instead of just being on these sites.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Larry Rosen?
ROSENWell, one of the things that I think is interesting is lots of times people try to do exactly what the caller did, which is to just give it up. And that is really difficult because when you have anxiety about something, and in this case anxiety about missing out on something that anxiety is going to continue to build up. Chemicals in your brain, the neurotransmitters are going to continue to build up and make you feel worse and worse and worse.
ROSENOne of the things that I recommend is that that getting rid of it immediately and completely often won't work for most people. What will work is training your brain to live without periods of time. And so one of the things that I do, for example, in classrooms or, again, families at the dinner table, on corporate meetings is to suggest that people institute what I call a tech break. So tech breaks are really simple.
ROSENWhat you do, say, in a classroom is you tell all your students, OK, everybody check your Facebook for two minutes, check your texts, check anything you want for two minutes, put them away, silence the phone, and somebody set an alarm for 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, everybody jumps up, grabs their phones and checks for a minute and puts it away and then focuses for 15 more minutes and on and on and on.
ROSENAnd then eventually when the students or people at the dinner table get it, what you end up doing is lengthening it to 20 minutes and 25 minutes and 30 minutes. You're slowly essentially desensitizing your brain and your neurotransmitters into not getting anxious and learning. You can go for up to 30 minutes, sometimes longer, sometimes an hour even without feeling that urge that need to check in. And I think what's important is that we built up this problem over a period of time. We have to get rid of it over a period of time.
NNAMDILarry Rosen on building tech breaks into our everyday routines as part of our Tech Tuesday conversation on Unplugged: Overcoming Our Digital Obsession. Larry Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills and author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWhat would you miss most if you had no Internet or Smartphone? 800-433-8850. Joining us in studio is Patricia Wallace, senior director for online programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Psychology of the Internet." Paul Miller was supposed to be joining us. He's the New York writer who stayed unplugged for an entire year.
NNAMDIHe's now senior editor of The Verge. We're trying to track Paul down, maybe he has unplugged his mobile device from the Internet and everything else today, but he should be joining us during the course of the conversation. On now to Jinni in Silver Spring, Md. Jinni, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JINNIHello there. I wanted to say from the experience -- years of experience out of this that there can be an advantage to being the one who's known for only checking in once or twice a day because you take the pressure off other people to be totally up in the know. They will know more than you are, and so they don't have to feel that they're going to be the only one who doesn't know. And it eases things on them, and then they can feel superior to you, and then actually they tell you what's going on.
JINNIBut they may do it in the way that you picked, like leaving a message on your voicemail instead of assuming that you're going to check your email 27 times an hour.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Pat Wallace?
WALLACEThat's a good strategy. I think another thing that we might look into here is why those environments are so compelling and what's going on there. The companies that create these environments, the Facebook, the Twitter, social games, Zynga, they have a tremendous drive to create sites that are very, very sticky that create that compelling experience, and they're hiring droves of behavioral scientists to make them even more compelling.
WALLACEAnd at the same time, they hire data scientists to analyze all the enormous numbers of clicks and quick stream data and big data to keep making these environments more and more compelling. When we start talking with our students about what's behind that, why Zynga, the social game, for example, would create a pink cow and inform your -- all your friends on Farmville that they need milk for that cow, or they want milk from that cow, then they start to understand what's behind those things. And that I think helps them better control some of this behavior.
NNAMDILarry Rosen, what's going on in our brains when we're overstimulated by our online connections?
ROSENWell, two things are going on. One, we are doing our best to strive to do things that bring us pleasure, and in order to do that, what we're trying to do is activate a part of the brain called the dopaminergic network that releases dopamine, which is a chemical that we've equated with pleasure. The problem is -- and I think Dr. Wallace said it perfectly that we also have this compulsion, and this compulsion deposits chemicals, lots of neurotransmitters that we have intensely linked to outward signs like sweaty palms, heart palpitations that indicate to us anxiety. And this is a battle going on in our brains.
ROSENDo we wanna get some pleasure? Do we wanna reduce the anxiety? Do we wanna get some pleasure? Do we wanna reduce the anxiety? When -- Dr. Wallace is talking about -- talking -- working with students on being able to focus when they're studying, we just completed a study and published it showing that in a period of 15 minutes of watching somebody study, a high school student, middle school student, college student, the longest they can focus is about three to five minutes at the most, and then they're distracted.
ROSENAnd what they're distracted by is mostly something that has to do with communication: social media, email, Twitter, text messages. And it is highly engaging and highly compelling, almost like Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets," locking and unlocking the door, washing and rewashing his hands. It's almost to that point when we feel that kind of a compulsion, an obsession with this tool. And we have to learn to get rid of that anxiety out of our brain. That's the part that's really important.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But we're still be -- we'll still be conducting this conversation after the break. So if you'd like to join it, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Is there someone in your life you think needs to take a tech holiday? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. It's Tech Tuesday, Unplugged: Overcoming Our Digital Obsession. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on overcoming our digital obsession. How much do you suffer from fear of missing out? You can find out by taking the quiz that you will find on our website, kojoshow.org. If you have questions or comments for our guests, you can give us a call at 800-433-8850. When you check social media and text messages, are you driven by the pleasure it gives you or by the fear of missing something important? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Patricia Wallace, senior director for Online Programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Psychology of the Internet." Larry Rosen joins us by phone from San Diego. He is a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us."
NNAMDIPat Wallace, what are the symptoms of a teenager who is obsessed with being online? Do you see teens who are themselves just voluntarily cutting back their tech time?
WALLACEWe do. We do. The symptoms are that they readily admit that they are anxious if they're away from their technology too long. So symptoms like that or that it's interfering with their grades. But they're using, I think, some very clever strategies to get off or reduce the time. And as Professor Rosen was saying that it's not really necessary or the parents wouldn't want them to get off entirely because for safety reasons.
WALLACEBut things like -- one student, for example, got a huge digital clock, a stop clock that she put over her computer screen, and she called it the shaming effect where she would dial it down to 15 minutes. And the point was that those environments are just so compelling that time just goes by so fast that putting that clock there is going to help.
NNAMDISo once that 15 minutes was gone, she had to get off of whatever...
NNAMDI...social media device -- social media website she was on. Is the overstimulation of being online worse the younger you are? How much a general -- generational component is there, Larry Rosen? Do you know?
ROSENWell, you know, the neuroscience research is just starting to look into that. I think that in general, what we're starting to see is that the environment itself is not necessarily what is driving the issue, what is driving the problem. What is driving it is that we are putting ourselves into environments where we are constantly distracted, and that's the critical part. There are so many things in our visual field that are calling for our attention.
ROSENAnd quite honestly, they're doing it very cleverly. We have all these smartphones that have separate rings for different people, separate tones for text messages. And those tones, those rings set off neurotransmitters in our brain and draw us away. And we've found in our research and other people in other labs around the world had found the same thing that the biggest draw is something that has to do with being social because as a human race, we are highly social, and we want -- we strive to communicate. And it's exactly those clever pulls that overactivate our brain.
NNAMDIAny idea, Pat Wallace, whether there's really a generational component to this?
WALLACEWell, certainly these younger students are starting to carry smartphones around very early. And I think part of what they're learning is that, especially these gifted students, is that they can regulate their level of boredom or stimulation with a mobile device and use some of these little timeslots that -- waiting for an elevator or sitting on the bus for either tinkering with their social media and doing the, you know, communication pieces of it or playing games or learning or whatever they wanna do.
WALLACEBut to some extent, they're so -- they're getting so used to being able to regulate how much stimulation they have by turning to a device as soon as it gets a little boring in life, that they're not going to sit still in a classroom anymore and listen to the teacher.
NNAMDIPlus, they're not comfortable with our own thoughts anymore. Paul Miller, the writer who then unplugged for a year, has written, "I'd used the Internet constantly since I was 12 and is my livelihood since I was 14. I'd gone from paperboy, to Web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I did not know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information."
NNAMDIAnd we got this email from Justice in Fairfax, "I was listening to the show last week when you touched on unplugging from social media. Partially as a result of that show, I decided to deactivate my Facebook for the summer. I felt such a wave of relief the minute I hit the button. We'll see how long it lasts, but so far, I feel liberated." And Justice says, "I'm 23 years old." On to the telephones now. Here is Evans in Washington, D.C. Evans, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANSHi, Kojo. How are you doing?
EVANSFirst of all, I wanna say I love your show. It's fantastic.
EVANSOK. So my question today is about computer usage and divorce, and I'm wondering if there's been any formal studies about the effects of heavy information technology use on divorce rates. Basically, I think that, you know, higher volumes of communication across an extending range of media cause relationships to evolve more rapidly and to a highly complex stage with more complex dynamics. And I'm wondering if this accelerated communication process causes relationships to be more likely to fail and to fail more quickly when they do.
NNAMDIWell, I'll ask our guests. But anecdotally, a friend just told me two weeks ago that she went to the movies with guy who kept texting during the course of the movie...
EVANSThat's not good.
NNAMDI...and that was the last date they ever had. Larry Rosen, any idea about the effect this has on relationships?
ROSENWell, you know, we have actually done a series of studies on online dating which is what the caller described, and it is very different. You -- when you meet someone in person at a bar, at a club, at a restaurant, you tend to cultivate a relationship slowly, and it builds up over time. And that helps your brain assimilate information about this person, make assumptions, make guesses, check them out slowly over time. When you meet somebody online, that whole process is dumped upside down.
ROSENYou start exchanging emails rapidly, text messages rapidly, back and forth. And because you're behind a screen and you feel somewhat anonymous and safe, you tend to be a bit more sexualized, you tend to be a bit more self-disclosing. And it turns out that that rapidly spins you into a relationship that may not have worked if you had given it time to play itself out. That's part of what we're starting to see all across the board with all of this communication happening behind screens.
ROSENWho is the real you? Is the real you the one that's texting rapidly to people that's posting on Facebook, or is it the person that, in person, is quiet, is more pensive, looks around, thinks about things, thinks things through? The other issue -- that when the caller started, I thought he was gonna go to -- was the fact that many families are finding that at the dinner table, watching television, that nobody is just doing one activity. They're constantly checking their phones all the time -- throughout dinner, throughout a television show.
ROSENAnd so for example, in the old days where you might have sat and chatted with your spouse or your kids about what you just saw on television, now, everybody is seriously playing words with friends and Angry Birds and checking their text messages and really checked out of the conversation.
WALLACEThere is evidence that Facebook does increase the level of jealousy in -- among partners. And part of that is due to the fact that you can't always tell who the audience is when a significant other, friends, someone that you think might be a competitor, then you don't know who that is. But it could be the man's sister or the woman's, you know, niece or something. So the fact that the audience itself is so vague is a problem.
WALLACEThe other thing I wanted to add to what Professor Rosen was talking about is the children that we deal with are, again, are very tech-savvy, and we see them using text messaging at 70 to 100 times per day rate but typically to one another. That is to -- in other words, we're not dealing with strangers here or we're not trying to date online for the most part for these kids.
WALLACEBut they'll be at the dinner table, and the two daughters might be texting under the table to one another, or they'll be in separate bedrooms texting to one another. So they use it as a way to just stay tightly connected with their close family and friends.
NNAMDIEvans, thank you for your call. We move on to Brian in Alexandria, Va. Bryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I always find these conversations fascinating 'cause I'm one of the people that -- I don't use Facebook. I don't use Twitter. I don't do -- I mean, I have email, and I'm online constantly during the day and connecting with people. I just don't do it that way. I'm still baffled by when they talked about the general reports about cutting people back 15 minutes to 20 minutes. I thought at first he was joking, and I realized, of course, in this conversation, you're actually real about people not being able to go that long.
BRIANI was gonna make a comment about I went to the movies this weekend, the previous caller mentioned it. I was amazed at how many people cannot get through a movie. I've had to -- the last several times I've gone to the movies -- have to shush somebody or tap them on the shoulder and say, please turn that off, because now with a Smartphone, you turn on, it's like having a bright flashlight in the middle of the theater.
NNAMDIThat's true. That's true.
BRIANAnd I can't -- I don't understand, and maybe someone can tell me -- you could see people saying, mentioning, checking every few minutes or checking -- literally, what are they checking? How is it that people can't get through a two-hour movie without having to check multiple times? And unless I -- a couple of people I tap them and say, it's don't turn that on again, and they sheepishly didn't. But I'm probably gonna get in some sort of confrontation soon with somebody who can't go for 30 minutes without checking.
BRIANEven in a movie, I paid, you know, nine bucks to see a movie. I don't want some guy with a flashlight on essentially next to me, you know, even when they try to put under their jacket, and I can see them scrolling, and I'm like, you know, turn that off. And they have about half a dozen messages now before the movie starts. They have to update them 'cause they always say silent your phones.
BRIANWell, nobody's phone rings anymore in the theaters, but the glow. You can just see it's like a little Christmas tree out through the audience where these lights peeking on for several minutes at a pop throughout the course of the movie. I might have to stop going to the theater if they can't do something about people not turning their phones on. What is it, please? Somebody tell me why they can't go for 15 minutes without checking.
NNAMDIWell, I'm gonna have Larry Rosen respond as to whether it's anxiety, fear of missing out or whether Brian just hasn't heard of the going to the bathroom without getting up app. Go ahead, Larry Rosen. You're on the air. Go ahead, Larry.
ROSENWell, it's clearly anxiety. There's no doubt about that. It's anxiety about feeling as though you're missing out, and we're not just seeing it at movie theaters. And trust me, I mean, we've all noticed that, people trying to hide their phones under their jackets. You're not fooling anybody, but they can't stand it any longer. It can't go any longer. And you see these on airplanes.
ROSENI travel a lot, and they always tell you wait until the captain says you can turn on your phones. Well, as soon as the airplane is in its descent, everybody's got their phones out. They're ready to turn on. It's almost like a race to get there first. And I started noticing this -- in our research we're starting to see this in other locations where ordinarily we would've done other things. For example, somebody mentioned earlier, standing in a line at a grocery store.
ROSENIn the old days, and by old days I might mean five, seven years ago, we would glance at the magazines there. We would talk to people in line. We would say, how are you doing? Oh, is that nice product that you buy? You like those lemons? They're good. Now, we don't do that anywhere. We can't tolerate not being connected. That's the bottom line is we can't tolerate it, and we choose it over human contact with those right in front of us.
ROSENAnd that concerns me for two reasons. One, because if you're communicating behind a screen, you're not getting all the cues that you get from somebody face to face. But also, if you're constantly dragging that phone out, you're not giving yourself that time to connect with people around you, to daydream, to mind wonder, to think about things. You're simply immersing yourself into bits and bytes of communications rapidly coming at you and rapidly leaving you, and that's affecting our brains.
ROSENWe are thinking less deeply. We are daydreaming less. We are mind wondering less, and we are communicating less. We're not connecting less here, we're communicating less.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Eric in Chantilly, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
ERICYeah. Hello. I just wanna let you know that I got off Facebook about three or four months ago, and I just -- I'm under the firm belief that most people are just nuts because...
NNAMDIWhy did you get off of Facebook?
ERICIt had to do with the Newtown shooting. I couldn't take the blast -- I don't know what you call them. The blast from people, the sympathy, the -- for me, I just thought it was -- how do you express a complete nonsense? And...
NNAMDIIt was just too excessive for you.
ERICYes. It was, you know, it was crazy. It was nuts. I mean, you had people doing all kinds of -- it just brought into me the simple fact people need to vote, you know? They don't need to get on their Facebook and tell everybody how sorry they are, they need to get out and vote. Either vote for people who support it or vote for people who don't support it, and I'm talking about gun control. And I know that has nothing to do with that. But what I'm saying is people think that all they got to do is get on their Facebook, express their sympathy or...
NNAMDIAnd they feel as if they have actually done something. The call just dropped off. Pat, smartphones and the Internet have given us the ability to control how stimulated we are at all times. How has that contributed to our inability to cope with downtime, to cope with boredom?
WALLACEIt's made it more difficult. There's no question about that that when people are able to regulate and calibrate exactly how much stimulation they will accept, they go after more and more of it. So that that's why you see people driving and when it gets a little too boring at a stoplight, they'll pull their Smartphone out. They -- we've never had this capability before. Before, you could use the time for daydreaming or learning a new language or listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
WALLACEBut now we have something else, something that's -- a mobile device that's available at all times where we have a kind of portal into the rest of the universe.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Christopher in Alexandria, who said, "This show is very timely as I need to rejoin Facebook, but I'm afraid to put my toe back in the water. About three years ago, I quit everything online including changing my email address and phone number. I'm a private person, but honestly, it was also really stressing me out just keeping up with all the Joneses. Unfortunately, I am missing out on family vacation photos and other updates that can only be found on Facebook right now. Any advice on rejoining the online world without getting the bends, if you will?"
NNAMDII'll tell you what, Christopher. We've tracked down Paul Miller, who unplugged for an entire year. So we're gonna take a break, and when we come back and Paul comes on, I'm going to ask him about his process of getting back on after being unplugged for a year.
NNAMDIAnd that might offer you some guidance about how you might want to do it yourself. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. It's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing Unplugged: Overcoming Our Digital Obsession. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing overcoming our digital obsession and being unplugged from the Internet with Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us." Patricia Wallace joins us in studio. She's senior director for online programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Psychology of the Internet."
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Paul Miller. He is senior editor of The Verge. He is the New York writer we referred to earlier who went unplugged for a whole year. Paul Miller, thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL MILLERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIPaul, what did you learn about yourself and about how the Internet and social media affect our well-being after -- during your year of abstinence?
MILLERWell, you know, it was really novel for me because I'm a bit younger and I didn't know anything else other than the Internet. So it was really great being bored. It was really interesting, and I learned a lot about myself. And for a while, I was really creative. It was the first time my brain had been totally cleared of all that noise. But there's also just a lot of downsides because I miss people.
MILLERYou know, people are on the Internet, for better or worse, and if you want to be with people, you need to be on the Internet, at least if you wanna be with my friends or my family who are kind of scattered around.
NNAMDIWell, that's interesting because I just read an email that we got from Christopher in Alexandria, who, like you, unplugged for several years and now is trying to figure out how to get back on. You reconnected yourself two weeks ago, Paul. What was it like to get back online, and what websites, devices and apps are you using most now? What advice can you give to Christopher?
MILLERWell, I sort of panicked when I got back. I found it really scary. Like the first night, like literally I was kind of terrified of having 3,000 tabs at once, like this is so much information to manage. But I, you know, I really like -- the Internet's fun. It's just a little scary, and I don't want it to take over my life. I was at a coffee shop with my sister, and I had something I did kind of need to get done on my laptop.
MILLERAnd so my laptop was open. I was on there, and she was trying to talk to me. And I was half listening. She said, well, the wall's back up again, you know? And I was like, you know what, I don't -- and I started closing my laptop, and I don't want the wall to be up. So my family was up here for the weekend, and I don't have a Smartphone yet, so that was nice. And I'm still deciding when I'll get a Smartphone, when I'll be ready for it. I wanna make sure when I'm using the devices to find people and that when people are with me, I don't -- I'm not using the devices.
NNAMDIThere's something else I'd like you to explain for our audience because you talk about how your brain calmed down dramatically during your year offline. Can you describe that feeling for us and whether you found a way of being able to maintain that calm since you returned to the Internet?
MILLERYeah. I think there's a -- when you can have a quick access to information or if you can quickly blast out information -- so Twitter and Wikipedia, for instance -- if you have a question in your mind, you pull it up and you get the answer right away. If you have a concept in your mind, you pull it up and you put it out there right away. And so there's a loop for most of the things that you think about that can connect directly to technology and other people sort of right away.
MILLERAnd so it took me about a month to deprogram myself from thinking in the form of 140-character tweets, you know? If I had an epiphany, it meant it would be a good tweet, you know? And so my brain started thinking in a different way. It was really quick for me to learn how to tweet again, and my brain, you know, thinks about that stuff now. So I'm actually curious -- and you have some excellent thought -- if there -- if you guys know of ways to keep that, the brain noise, free while still being a productive member of society.
NNAMDII'll put it to Larry Rosen because, obviously, Paul has begun to feel some Internet anxiety again, if you will. How do you maintain that state of calm, Larry Rosen, when you're plugged in?
ROSENWell, neuroscience again has the answer for you. What we're starting to find in neuroscience is that there are certain activities that we know will very rapidly calm your brain. And the recommendation is that just like we have 90-minute sleep cycles, we have 90-minute day cycles too. And after about 90 minutes, what many of us do is get up and make a cup of coffee or get a soda or get a cup of water. We take a break.
ROSENIn the old days, they used to use it for cigarette breaks. Well, the whole idea was to do something to calm your brain. So we now know from neuroscience that if you simply walk outside and look at nature for 10 minutes, that calms your brain, and you can start back to work with a calmer demeanor. Exercise calms your brain. There are classrooms that I've visited, kindergarten classrooms where the kids are on technology all day.
ROSENAnd about every hour-and-a-half, the teacher yells, OK, everybody run, and they run around the classroom. And they run for a few minutes, and that helps calm their brain. I'm sure you've heard the adage that we get our best ideas in the shower.
ROSENThat's because warm water turns out to calm your brain. Exercise, meditation -- all of these things will calm your brain. And my recommendation -- and, in fact, this is why I wrote "iDisorder" because we all are all facing these issues. And my recommendation is about every-hour-and-a-half to two hours, do something that calms your brain for 10 minutes. That's all.
NNAMDIPat Wallace, we got this tweet from someone, who says, "I let go of the tech by working with my hands: gardening, playing instruments, painting and yoga."
ROSENAll of those calm your brain.
NNAMDIYeah. I guess so.
WALLACEThey do, and this is another example of how these devices and better control over them will give us a lot more control over the stimulation level. But as -- in some cases, we definitely want to reduce it by yoga or meditation or just a break. In other cases, we wanna keep it at a higher level. So we have all these opportunities now that we hadn't had in the past.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned keep it at a higher level because one positive aspect of the Internet is that it does let us connect with people. Isn't there some pleasure to be derived from that?
WALLACEOh, there is. There is no question that -- if we go back to evolutionary psychology with looking at primates who evolved with sociality as the central theme. So to some extent this -- the online connectivity that we're seeing could be what's called a super stimulus in evolution. We're like a Hershey bar where we like sweet foods because their dense in calories, but we never evolved to dislike to something as sweet as a Hershey bar, so we like that even more.
WALLACEAnd in this case, we may wind up liking the online connectivity as a super stimulus. It's such a strong, powerful, compelling environment for social behavior that we're using it far too much.
NNAMDIOlivia in McLane, Va., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIHi, Olivia. Your turn.
OLIVIAHi, Kojo. I just want to say thank you so much for taking my call. And actually, I want to ask the panel about this phenomenon that we're seeing called the overshare. And I actually manage social media for brands, restaurants, my university. And you're seeing this phenomenon where the more people are, you know, experiencing fear of missing out (word?) they keep updating their statuses, and they keep updating their Facebook and their Twitter.
OLIVIAWhat's really interesting is that people will stop paying attention to those friends who keep updating and keep posting more things because they just become noise. So I just kind of wanted to know what you guys think of these people who maybe post too much and how people are evolving to not kind of like those statuses as much or give them notice.
WALLACEThat's such a good point. And a lot -- some of this has to do with the fact that you just -- when you're posting on Facebook, you just can't see that arched brow or that frown from your friends. And so you don't really know whether they're annoyed by your posting unless you have the nerve to actually tell them about that. The whole business of not knowing who your audience is when you're posting or tweeting is a big factor in why people behave differently when they're online.
NNAMDIPaul, you tweet a lot. Are you absolutely convinced that you should because your followers appreciate it?
MILLERShould I make a parallel confession? I -- in some point in the last two minutes, I'm not gonna tell you guys exactly when, I grabbed my iPad because I'm quite -- to see if I had any @mention.
MILLERSo, you know, I didn't turn it on, I set it back out. And I forgot your question. I'm really sorry. I love to tweet. I really do, and it's great. Something I realized sort of middle of the year of not using the Internet, but I always consider myself -- I'm a Twitter myself. Some people are Facebook people, I'm a Twitter person. But I realized that the way I was using Twitter was a real -- it's sort of a blast. I just like telling everybody something cool, something funny that I thought, you know, it was a stage for me.
MILLERAnd that most of my friends and family, my close friends and family were actually on Facebook. And they didn't blast, and they wanted to be talk to and have, you know, close conversations and share photos of their kids and stuff like that. And I just didn't, you know, I was too selfish to participate in that 'cause I wanted to blast to my, you know, 10,000 Twitter followers.
MILLERSo that's something -- a behavior I'm trying to alter, which is to focus more on Facebook, which is hard for me, and I'm not as entertained by it, but I think it's more quality time.
NNAMDIOK. Olivia, thank you very much for your call. Here -- Larry Rosen, did you wanna comment on that?
ROSENYeah. There were two things that struck me. One is that a very interesting study was done -- and I forget who did it -- where they looked at tweeters and found that three quarters of them are what they called meformers, which is tweeting about me, what I'm doing, me, me, me. And only one quarter of them were what they called informers, telling people about interesting information, articles they've read, whatever. And I think that kind of defines Twitter as really a narcissistic platform.
ROSENThe other thing is that when we were talking about people continually posting and posting and posting, one of the subtle things that happens is they sit and look and look and look to see how many likes they get. And this simple little four letter word like stimulates such a relief of positive dopamine chemicals in the brain that makes them feel good or the lack of them makes them feel bad. And so part of why they're doing this is to get this sort of weird kind of reinforcements.
ROSENAnd it's not fooling them. They know that just somebody just clicked the button. And they even go out and ask their friends, hey, when I post something, please click like, because it makes them feel good, and they want to feel noticed. It's really a call to say, look at me, look at me, look at me, pay attention to me.
NNAMDISo a politician has to wait every two or four years to get likes when people vote for him or her. On Facebook, you can get likes or votes several times per hour, per day, correct, Larry?
ROSENAbsolutely. And, in fact, what's interesting is -- and I thought it was interesting what Paul said. It's like -- in the morning, sometimes I will grab my phone, and if I posted something on, say, Facebook the day before or posted on -- made...
NNAMDIYou're looking for likes too.
ROSENI'm looking for them. That's exactly right. I get up because I know that some of the stuff I post is being read by colleagues and friends overseas. And I'm figuring while I'm sleeping, they're awake, so they must have liked what I posted.
NNAMDIAnd if they didn't, are you disappointed?
ROSENYes. Actually there is this letdown. There is this severe psychological, physical, visceral letdown. Oh, my God, I didn't get any likes.
NNAMDIThis is true. I have experienced it. Pat, care to comment?
WALLACEWell, this is a lot about operant conditioning, where people will seek the reward and keep checking back and forth. And the most powerful schedule for operant conditioning is called the variable intermittent schedule, meaning that you don't get a reward out of regular phase, you only get it once in a while. And if you look at rats in a box pressing a lever, that's the behavior that keeps them pressing that -- that's the reward schedule that keeps them pressing that lever forever.
NNAMDIWe're there. Here is Lynn in Fredericksburg, Va. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNThanks for taking my call. I actually was recently diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And one of the symptoms that really allowed me to realize I needed some help was I completely do some Facebook. I don't think I have been addicted to it before, but I certainly check statuses frequently, catch up with friends and family. And it's now one of the ways -- I kind of step back in a little bit.
LYNNBut it's now one of the ways I can tell if I'm doing OK or if I'm having a bad day because I still get very anxious when someone says, oh, I sent you a message. Can you check it? I don't particularly like going back on the social media sites.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time. Thank you very much for your call, Lynn. But, Paul Miller, I wanted to ask you, what's it's like to be back at work at The Verge?
MILLERIt's -- I'm still kind -- I was really distant from people in all sorts of ways. And I saw my co-workers more than almost anybody, but I was not in sync with them. I was not the same employee as them. So I'm sort of like -- it's like I'm re-meeting the people, you know, like I get into the chat room and people are like, Paul, and, like, I just wanted -- I hadn't seen them in the office. And so it's really interesting, and I'm trying to become a productive member of the society again.
MILLERI think there is something to not having the likes for a year that was really good and freeing, but also, I became kind of my own thing, and I need to be a little more with people now.
NNAMDIAfraid we're out of time. Paul Miller, a senior editor with The Verge. Patricia Wallace is senior director for online programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Psychology of the Internet." Larry Rosen is professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us." Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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