Digital addiction: The dark side of technology

By Susan Older
Oct. 27, 2009

When absolutely everyone on the plane is 35,000 feet high and clueless, something is terribly wrong.

Excuse me. Is whatever’s on your laptop so enthralling that you can’t look up for, oh, I don’t know, 91 minutes? Or are you just bored with flying this plane?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read that the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last Wednesday weren’t asleep, drunk or even embroiled in a heated business discussion when they ignored a barrage of urgent radio signals, cockpit lights and warning signs for what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said today was a one minute more than an hour and a half.

The two highly experienced pilots weren’t even flying the plane. They were on their laptops and lost track of time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated. So were many of their passengers, I’m sure, but they weren’t responsible for flying the airplane.

Precisely what the pilots were doing on their laptops may never be shared with us or with the 144 passengers and three flight attendants who occupied the cabin of the “auto-piloted” Airbus 320. All we know now is that during the 91 minutes they were off the grid everyone on that plane was 35,000 feet high and clueless.

It reminded me of the Amtrak commuter train engineer who was text messaging on his cell phone 22 seconds before he rammed into a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., in September 2008, killing 25 passengers and injuring about 140, many of them critically.

At least no one died this time. When air traffic controllers couldn’t get the attention of the wayward pilots, other airline pilots found an alternate radio frequency and managed to get them to put down their laptops and get back to reality.

Northwest Flight 188, which had begun its flight in San Diego, turned around over Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and eventually landed safely in Minneapolis. The FAA has revoked the licenses of both pilots. They have 10 days to appeal the ruling to the NTSB.

You know, there is a basic moral code we like to think we share as humans: We have an obligation to act responsibly when we are in a position to hurt or kill other people. It’s simply wrong to endanger others in order to take care of personal business, whether you’re a pilot, a train engineer, or a soccer parent.

So why do so many of us break this Golden Rule? Why do we talk or text on our cell phones while we’re driving? Why do we feel the need to update our Facebook statuses or tweet our every move on Twitter at stoplights when the information we’re sharing can wait? Why do we spend hours online only to look up and realize that we’re late for work or have missed an important appointment?

It’s digital addiction. And we’ve got it bad.

“When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet, email, texting, chatting and Twittering has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior,” writes Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA Psychiatry Professor and a renowned expert on technology and the brain. His name for its sufferers: techno-addicts.

How does it work?

Dopamine, the brain chemical that’s responsible for addictions, is what drives digital dependency, Small explains on his blog Brain Bootcamp, which appears on the Psychology Today site.

When you do something that you find pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine. That feels good. It’s like a runner’s high. When your brain wants more dopamine, you turn to your addiction of choice to get it.

“The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive,” writes Small.

Digital addiction comes in all forms: social networking, random Web browsing, iTunes purchases, video games, gambling, stock market quotes, and sports scores. Oh, and eBay. Yes, eBay is addictive.

But does engaging in these activities make us digital derelicts? Not necessarily. Most of the time, we’re not risking lives in the pursuit of our virtual thrills. Generally, we’re in a safe environment – at home or at work – but we’re still just as addicted. And we’re often making a conscious choice to interact anti-socially, using a digital device rather than speaking directly to other people.

We can sit at our computers for hours without talking – convincing ourselves that networking online is more important than talking to the real, live person sitting next to us. And when we seek more “immediacy,” many of us turn to instant messaging or video chats.

This reality-avoidance behavior is emblematic of the damaging effect digital addiction is having on all of us. It’s like one of those Redneck jokes: If you text your wife to ask her if she’d like to engage in sex, you might be a digital addict.

Let’s hope we all learn from the mistakes of the Amtrak engineer and the Northwest Airlines pilots. And, let’s hope we learn not to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone. That’s a lesson we can learn from Maria Shriver.

The first lady of California has been caught on camera three times since June talking on her cell phone while driving. That’s in direct violation of the law that her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, supported and shepherded into state law last year. It’s inexcusable and it’s dangerous.

I have a visor-mounted Bluetooth device in my car. It pairs with my cell as soon as I hop in the driver’s seat and makes calls on voice command using my iPhone’s address book. It was less than $100 online. And the nice thing about getting one for yourself is that you can earn a gold star for effort while engaging in one of my favorite digital addictions: online shopping.

Hey, we’re all ensnared in these habits. But we can put them in perspective and use them to our advantage. We can use them to become less careless human beings.

UCLA’s Dr. Small believes that, in some respects, technology is actually altering the way our brains work and making us smarter.

Like all addicts, we have to take the first step if we want to conquer our demons. And that’s why I’m going to finish this column and get off my computer. One thing to remember, though: When the digital devices that we say make our lives better actually become our lives, no one wins (except the technology companies).

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