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Is your reliance on digital technology giving you a brain disorder?

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New conditions emerge as society finds it hard to keep up with smartphones

The Digital Revolution didn’t take long, when you think about it. It was only about 30 years ago when office workers were still using landlines, typewriters and fax machines, and those outside who needed to contact someone would drop a quarter in a payphone. The longest one might have to wait to see one’s vacation photos was the time Fotomat took to develop and print a roll of film. And kids had to go to the library to do their term papers.

Now, many of those kids won’t know what you’re talking about if you describe the way things were just before they were born. And a troubling question presents itself: can kids, or adults for that matter, live without smartphones?

The answer is, it seems to be getting harder and harder. But it also seems to be true that it’s getting harder to live with new technology as well. A recent article in The Week took an overview at what apparently are new brain disorders that have come along with the Digital Revolution.

“It’s hard to remember what life was like before we had the internet at our fingertips, smartphones in our pockets, and a laptop on every desk,” author Tammy Kennon wrote. “Today, our brains are racing to adapt to the digital age. Cognitive neuroscientists say all that time we now spend in front of screens has changed the way we read and comprehend. Internet browsing has shortened both our attention spans and our patience. And it’s doing a number on our memories.”

High on the list of new brain disorders Kennon described is something being called Nomophobia. The term is a digital-style shorthand for Fear of No Mobile Phone. Phobia, in fact, might be an understatement.

“In one U.K. survey, 73 percent of respondents felt panic when they misplaced their phone,” Kennon reported. “And for another 14 percent, that panic spiraled into pure desperation.”

Then there’s “technoference.” This is what they’re calling the phenomenon of digital technology and social media interfering with our personal relationships. Perhaps we’ve all been a little annoyed when we’re trying to carry on a conversation with someone who seems more interested in what he is learning from his phone, responding in a vague, distant sort of way to our questions or comments.

But what’s really sad is that aspect of technoference that shows up at times of intimacy with our spouses.

“Another study found that smartphones are getting in the way of our sex lives,” Kennon wrote. “A stunning 40 percent of participants said they’d postponed sex because of smartphone use. Some admitted to hurrying through sex just to answer a phone call or read a mobile notification. ‘I’ll be on Facebook and he’ll be on a sporting app while we are both in bed,’ one participant admitted, ‘then we realize that we are literally sitting in bed together, but living in different worlds.’”

Other disorders described by the article include the “phantom ring,” that sense that your phone ringing or vibrating in your pocket, when it’s actually not on your person at that moment; cyberchondria, the growing practice of using the internet to look up and self-diagnose for imaginary afflictions; and the Truman Show Delusion, the false impression that your life is being watched and/or broadcast.

So, are smartphones dumbing us down, interfering with our social lives, or making us paranoid? There may not be that much difference between today’s technoference and the 1950s-era picture of the wife trying desperately to get her husband’s attention while he is reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, for example, or the fear some people had in the 1970s that the CIA was manipulating our thoughts by secretly implanting microchips in our brains.

But it might be worth it to put our technology aside once in a while, just to make sure we are able to still live without it.

As Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, who recently finished a doctorate at the Angelicum in Rome on St. Thomas Aquinas’ concept of habit in light of modern neuroscience, asks, “Why are we so desperate for the shallow pleasures that technology brings? Why do we want to escape reality of our lives into a virtual reality? Only by seriously confronting these sorts of questions can we come to use technology well and assess its influence on us.”

 

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