Monday, November 13, 2017

Erosion Of Intellect And Emotions: Part And Parcel Of What The Smart Phone Delivers

Image result for brane space, cell phones
Kids with eyes buried in tiny smart phone screens risk their intellectual capacity as well as emotional healthThe best advice based on latest research? Do not give a kid an iPhoneX for Xmas!

It was gratifying to read in The Denver Post of October 13 that Littleton students - touched by recent teen suicides -  met last month  to eat pancakes, play volleyball and soccer, and delete every social media app from their smartphones. En masse on Oct. 1st, about 150 students kicked off a month-long social media blackout by erasing Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the rest from their screens. Since then, the “Offline October” challenge has grown to include 1,600 people at 200 schools in seven countries.

This is a timely move even as we have learned about the new iPhoneX craze striking giddy buyers across the planet, despite its outrageous $1,000 price.  Then there was the news about Washington state announcing that from January it will prosecute for DUI-E or driving under the influence…of electronics.  Each offender will be fined $130 for each violation observed with the potential for enhanced sanctions for repeat violators. This also has come about as there is increased awareness of how smart phone use is pillaging minds - not only of teeny boppers but adults too (WSJ, 'How Smart Phones Hijack Our Minds' Oct. 7-8, pp. C1- C2)  Also, more recently, the article 'We Need To Talk About Kids and Smart Phones' (TIME, Nov. 6, by Markham Heid, sheds light on the pernicious emotional havoc that social media and overuse of smart phones can wreak.. The latter piece  highlighting "teen depression has surged fueling concern over mobile devices."

Actually, this shouldn't be at the level of quantum mechanics or rocket science.  Anyone who allows his or her attention to be fixated on assorted social media devices or apps (most of the contents  of which qualify as fake news, gossip or images that make others feel worse about themselves) can't help but lose self -esteem and also social context. If all you are doing is keeping your eyes fixed on a tiny blinking screen then you are already detaching from social real world interactions - as seen in the image at top. One can easily see this false social system at work any time you are in a public place such as a restaurant - where all the diners appear to be more connected to their phones than their fellow diners. It's absurd!

According to the Post article:

"Teens who made the blackout pledge say giving up social media is like trying to break an addiction."

And this should not be at all surprising.

What are some of the symptoms of smart phone  'always on' syndrome?

- The skipping heartbeat when your phone beeps with an alert and your brain is clobbered by instant curiosity at who or what it might be.

- The nagging need to ceaselessly check for incoming texts or pics even at the movies or while having dinner with your family.

- The recurring 'phantom vibration syndrome' - the creepy sensation in your gut that your cell is sounding off and you need to deal with it.

- The need to access your Twitter and text some bullshit, oblivious to walking even in traffic or high crime areas.

The WSJ piece, meanwhile noted that:

"A 2015 Journal Of Experimental Psychology study, involving 166 subjects, found that when people's phones beep or buzz while they're in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers and their work gets sloppier - whether they actually check the phone or not. Another 2015 study, which involved 41  iPhone users and appeared in The Journal of Computer -Mediated Communication, showed that when people hear their iPhone ring but are unable to answer it their blood pressure spikes and their pulse quickens as problem -solving skills decline."

This is truly ridiculous!  But now, what about the effect on younger, still maturing brains? Could there be intellectual as well as emotional penalties? The evidence appears fairly clear that there can be.

Adrian Ward, a cognitive scientist at University of Texas suspects our attachment to smart phones has grown so profound, so intense that their mere presence can diminish intelligence.  Experiments actually carried out at the Univ. of California-  San Diego appear to bear this out (WSJ, ibid.).  Two years ago, Ward and two colleagues (Kristen Duke and Ayelet Gneezy) recruited 520 students at UCSD and gave them two standardized tests - one of which actually gauged "available cognitive capacity". The second assessed fluid intelligence or the ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem.  The only variable in the experiment was the location of students' smartphones.

In both tests it was fond that those subjects whose phones were in full view posted the worst results.  In contrast, those who left the phones in another room did the best, "out of sight out of mind".  Clearly, as the phone proximity increased, brainpower decreased.    This led Prof. Ward and colleagues to conclude in published work that "the integration of smart phones into daily life caused a brain drain that diminished mental skills including: logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity."   Indeed, even the desire to check one's phone  could debilitate one's thinking.

Another less noted phenomenon is what's called the "Google Effect"  whereby smart phones make it so easy to gather information online that users believe it's their own mental capacities doing the work.   Thus, as Drs. Ward and Wegner noted in a 2013 Scientific American article smart phone addicts believe their own "mental capacities" had generated the information not their devices. As Dr. Ward put it (WSJ, ibid.): "The advent of the information age seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before even though they really know ever less about the world around them."

Ward believes this also explains why our current society has a gullibility crisis, precisely because people identify the easy info via smart phones as real so often, they come to accept anything coming through it as real.  Hence, they became too quick to "credit lies and half truths spread through social media by Russian agents" as real news. They became intellectual puppets and dupes.

There is also evidence overuse of smart phones can debilitate one's emotions, especially of younger high school kids.  This lot are more susceptible to counting image above everything else and so put themselves at risk of distorted comparison to others and depression. Case in point was the Connecticut teen "Nina" highlighted in the TIME article who grew so depressed  she attempted suicide. Cause? She had "stayed up late and stalked models on Snapchat" comparing her body to theirs and always finding it wanting.  As she put it "I always worried about how I looked".'

Now, to a normal adult brain this is small potatoes. No one, certainly of 71 yrs. of age like yours truly- contemplates suicide over how he looks!   That in itself is the epitome of solipsistic, distorted thinking. But for teens with unfinished brains it's a problem because they obsessively follow every image (or word)  sent to them - or that they access- on their little devices.   Thus, as Dr. Jenna Glover - a psychologist who treats teens with depression - put it in the Denver Post piece:

"These anonymous messaging apps are incredibly dangerous. When we have anonymity we are more likely to be reckless . These apps are bad for all kids no matter they are the bully or the victim"

Adding that "Girls, in particular, bully each other through relational aggression" - harming each other by social status and friendships.   And no one can argue that social media apps have dramatically magnified the degree of shame and embarrassment - when seeming everyone in a school can see a negative comment about someone at the same time.  Thus, while private physical bullying may have involved only one or two peers seeing it, anonymous message apps expand the audience vastly wider and in much less time.

This is why Dr. Glover advises parents to limit the use of media and apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

Recall that in an earlier post (Aug. 10) I referenced  McAfee survey report that also appeared in the Post (Aug. 7, p. 12A) that cyber bullying has now reached epidemic proportions especially in the U S of A.  The platforms most used for bullying in the order of their percentage of young users affected included:

- Facebook  71 %

- Instagram  - 62 %

- Snapchat  49 %

In the survey, which ranged over more than 3,000 kids in multiple countries it was found there was a 22 percent overall reporting of cyber bullying, compared to 30 percent for U.S. students. This is ridiculous and shows: a) too many kids are spending way too much time with these media, and b) the parents have abdicated control to their addicted kids.

In response to the findings, the author of the piece Minda Zetlin presented these bullet points:

-  Instagram and Snapchat have the greatest negative effect on young people's emotional health, with Instagram topping the stats.

- Spending more than two hours a day on social media is detrimental to kids' mental health and a "seriously bad idea".

Meanwhile, the research of Ward and others is disturbing indeed. It shows that "our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our heads, can be skewed by external forces we're not even aware of."   This is possible because our brain confers inordinate power on any object or device which has "salience" - and which then causes it to embrace and use beyond normal bounds.  In modern times that is the smart phone, and the motto from all these findings - for all of us- would seem to be: Less is better!

For parents considering buying the outrageously priced iPhone X for their offspring the advice would be not to do it. Why put an even more powerfully addicting device in their hands which would speed the intellectual and emotional descent of most users?  It would be little different from giving them an indefinite supply of narcotics.

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