Addicted to Technology

August 2nd, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Is technology responsible for decreased productivity?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Plenty of research has been done on the connection between technology and distraction. The results point to the likelihood that our focus and attention are eroding as we bounce from smartphone to tablet to laptop and so on. Many experts advocate taking a break from technology – even declaring a once-a-week technology “Sabbath.”

In February, at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, founders of Facebook, Twitter and eBay, among others, discussed the concept of Internet addiction. In one of the conference’s sessions, the panelists debated wither technology firms have a responsibility to consider their power to lure users into wasting time. Other participants provided ways to counteract the insistent draw of technology. Cisco’s Chief Technology and Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior said that she meditates every night and takes Saturday to paint and write poetry, turning off her phone. She called the digital detox a “reboot” for the brain.

But recently, New York Times technology columnist Jenna Wortham wrote that she had discovered some benefits of Internet-related distraction. Stressed out and on deadline, she took a 10-minute Internet detour and then returned, able to quickly complete her assignment. Wortham wrote, “It seems that instead of fracturing my focus and splintering my attention span, digital distractions have become a part of my work flow, part of the process, along with organizing notes and creating an outline for each article I write. If my brain is learning how to cope with distractions, is it possible that others are, too?”

Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist who studies the impact of interruption on performance and memory at the University of California, San Francisco, told Wortham that it’s possible that our brains are indeed adapting to handle digital stimulation. His research team uses interactive video games in order to observe how the brain adapts to multiple tasks that increase in difficult over time.

The complication is that the brain – or some brains – can handle some types of multitasking but not others. As Wortham writes, “Surfing the Web and talking on the phone may not place the same demand on available cognitive resources as, say, cruising down the highway and sending a message.”

While scientists are trying to figure out just how much our brains can handle, an industry has sprung up, aimed at helping people minimize their own distraction. MindTools.com, for example, advises scheduling email times, using applications like Freedom and Anti-Social that block websites for a user-determined amount of time and yes, even allowing yourself a few minutes to roam the Internet.

Is your brain adjusting to the distractions of multiple technology platforms competing for your attention? What coping mechanisms work best for you? Share them here.