THE BLOG
10/17/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Our Obsessive Relationship With Technology

I am an inveterate people watcher, which is probably why I started college thinking that I was going to be a math teacher and ended up getting my degrees in psychology. For the past 30+ years, as I have studied the "psychology of technology" I have always taken a strongly positive view about the impact it has on our culture and all of my writing has been in service of seeing how we can make the most of these marvelous inventions. From the beginnings of the Internet, to the rapid rise of the WWW, laptops, smartphones, tablets and more, we now have the world at our fingertips whenever we want and wherever we might find ourselves.

Lately, however, I have witnessed something that profoundly troubles me. WE CAN'T SEEM TO KEEP OUR FACES OUT OF OUR SMARTPHONES FOR EVEN A MINUTE OR TWO. Some people call it an addiction. Others call it an obsession. But, there is an important difference between the two. Addiction means that you are trying to get your brain to release neurotransmitters that we have learned signal a pleasurable experience. Obsession also involves neurotransmitters but those chemicals are associated with symptoms of stress and anxiety. When we are addicted to something we strive for the pleasure it brings. When we are obsessed with something we strive to reduce the anxiety molecules in our brain. Personally, I think that our constant obsession with technology--obsession being an anxiety-based disorder--is mostly about reducing anxiety and very little about gaining pleasure. Just as Jack Nicholson kept doing repetitive activities in As Good As It Gets, we seem to be doing the same with our smartphones.

For example, how many times have you seen someone pat their pocket and smile, having been reassured that their phone was still safely nestled close at hand? How often have you experienced "phantom pocket vibrations" where you felt a tingling near your pocket area--or wherever you keep your phone--only to discover that rather than the alert or notification you "thought" you just received what you felt was just some neurons near the surface of your skin randomly firing? A few years ago I would have just reached down and scratched that itch. Now I am supremely disappointed that it is only an itch.

Walking around Times Square on vacation I could not find one person who was not gazing into a phone, even those who were traveling with others. My friends around the world tell me that they see the same behaviors. The other day in the dining room at my campus I watched a young woman eating lunch with her supervisor pick up her phone while he was talking and check her email. And the more interesting part is that he kept on talking to her and didn't seem slighted at all.

Last summer I took a road trip with my youngest daughter and visited some of the most beautiful scenery in the US traversing four western national parks. One day we hiked all the way up to Inspiration Point only to find that since there was a cell tower up there nearly every hiker was looking down rather than out at the magnificent vista. And those who were looking were busily snapping pictures instead of simply looking and experiencing the magnificent views. I doubt whether they can have the same experience of nature through that small lens. Will those who were taking videos get the same enjoyment by reliving the views rather than experiencing them? Will they even watch those videos again?

Another interesting and somewhat troubling observation is that many young people, and a lot of older ones too, carry their phone in their hand. I often ask them why and the answer is always the same: "So, I know immediately when I get an text or an email or someone posts on social media." I guess taking a second or two to take that phone out of a pocket or purse is not soon enough in our tech-rich world.

And I find it amusing (and somewhat disconcerting) that people make excuses to escape whoever they are supposed to be spending time with so that they can check in with other people who may not even be real-life friends. I like going out to dinner with friends and am bewildered at how many people put their phone on the table and if it vibrates they interrupt whatever is going on to tap a few keys and return to the conversation often asking, "What did I miss?" Some people call this FOMO--Fear of Missing Out--but by choosing to not miss out on their virtual social world they are missing out on their real social world right in front of their face.

Another view of our obsession is evident as bedtime nears. People use their phones right up until they turn out the lights even though all of the research shows that this leads to suppression of melatonin and difficulty sleeping. Three fourths of teens and young adults sleep with their phone next to their bed either with the sound on or on vibrate and awaken several times a night to check incoming alerts. This disrupts our sleep cycle, which then impairs the all-important processes that our brain requires for its nightly housekeeping.

I am still a believer in the major benefits technology brings to our world but I sincerely hope that what we are seeing is just another pendulum swing where we become so excited about something new that we want to use it obsessively and as time passes we become less captivated and use it less often until the next new thing comes into our world and the pendulum swings again. But the observer in me shakes his head and wonders whether the pendulum has reached its apex yet and, if not, what that will do to our relationship with the world and the "real" people who inhabit it. I remain optimistic.