High Tech Gadgets: Addiction, Dependency, or Hype?

"Before we got fire, we used to talk to each other."

The New Yorker cartoon about the decrease in Neanderthal communication when the technology of fire was invented pokes fun at the current hullabaloo over users’ addiction to smart phones, iPads, and laptops. See below.

Did anyone else read this story about how electronic gadgets undermine our ability to focus amd concentr ...cool! The Padres won yesterday...

Recent media stories have played out two sides of an ancient argument. Consider Socrates’ take on the invention of writing: “[it] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Whenever access to new technologies increased the flow of information such as the printing press, telegraph, telephone, computer, and now smart phones, there were those who argued that such technologies reduced communication among friends and family, eroded community, increased isolation of individuals, and even made people dumb.

For example, recent articles on new technologies have claimed that PowerPoint reduces analysis to simple bullet points, Google makes us stupid, and Twitter compresses our attention span to that of a gnat. Moreover, these electronic technologies hook users to such a degree that civility and communication among friends and family are sacrificed to repeated fixes of email, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages.

Finally, there is a scary cognitive side to this argument. Neuroscientists claim that new technologies, particularly, social media and the geyser flow of information have changed how we think and behave. In short, our brain on computers undergoes re-wiring as we use daily–nay, hourly–laptop, and desktop computers, smart phones, and other electronic devices. Experience, then, alters the brain.

The other side of the argument is two-fold. First, cognitive scientists question seriously the trademark multi-tasking that gadget users trumpet repeatedly and the re-wiring of the brain. Studies, they say, have made them skeptical of these inflated claims.

Second, the metaphor of drug addiction is rhetorical overkill. The proper word is “dependent,” not addicted. Addiction is associated with individual choice to smoke, drink, and take drugs. It connotes personal weakness. Yet consider the spread of popular technologies as they have become habitual features of the culture. Think indoor plumbing, telephone, cars, planes, and television. They have become daily patterns in our lives. In short, Americans have become dependent on once “new” technologies. And that is normal. Addiction, however, is abnormal.

Dependency on technologies comes from job expectations (KIPP issues cell phones to all of its teachers; companies require employees to be available 24/7), family responsibilities (staying in daily touch with Mom or Dad), friends’ acquisitions (oooh, she has an iPad), augmented communication for the disabled, and dozens of other sources. All these pressures normalize the use of new technologies creating dependency on networked media and high-tech devices for both good and ill.

Now here is the kicker that undermines both sides of the argument. Recent surveys have established that children and youth spend nearly eight hours a day looking at media (cell phones, desktop and laptop computers, Mp3 players, television, etc.) not counting screen time in school. Except for the Alliance for Childhood and pediatricians, few, if any, civic leaders, business groups, and educational policymakers have questioned the ubiquity of 1:1 laptops, iPods, netbooks, Kindles, and smart phones in schools. For those who rail at Moms talking on cell phones while toddlers scream for attention, for those who point fingers at colleagues being hooked on gadgets or addicted to cell phones, why have they not called a halt to giving each child an iPad or netbook, given the huge amounts of screen time viewed daily? For those who fear that young, easy-to-mold brains get rewired as these devices are used daily in schools, where are the protests, the letters to the editor, the concerned citizens at school board meetings?

If re-wiring the brain and addiction to high-tech gadgets are rhetorical overkill–even hype–and the word “dependency” is more appropriate as technology continues to shape our daily habits for both good and ill, then perhaps it is time to ask publicly whether the school should be a willing, even eager, partner in deepening that dependency on gadgets with screens.


Filed under technology use

50 responses to “High Tech Gadgets: Addiction, Dependency, or Hype?

  1. The word addiction is not inappropriate here. If I am paying too much attention to the computer screen to notice what my child needs, that’s addictive behavior. The Internet is allowing me to put together a wonderful book, but it’s hard to use it wisely.

  2. I completely agree. I am a writer but also have a desk job – right now I go to work and use the computer all day, then come home and type on my laptop. I am also a photographer so I use the computer to edit photos. On top of being dependent on the computer for these day to day things I do, I often get sidetracked by the internet – email, facebook, wordpress….I can spend hours surfing and it doesn’t feel like an issue. Although, for some reason lately, I have been craving time outdoors. Maybe my brain is trying to tell me something? Hmm…

    • teknophilia

      I feel the same way; like anything, it’s not the actual device that’s at fault, or the act of using it. We simply have to manage how we use these things, and make sure we realize the impact they have on our lives, whether good or bad.

  3. Marshall McLuhan, in his Medium is the Message (or Massage), pointed out that technology changes our behavior, in ways profound that we can’t always currently detect.

    He points out that the invention of the electric light bulb allowed people to stay up after dark. Suddenly people could gather together after dark and talk into the night. Now you could do that before, but candles had limited burning times. Here the lights could stay on all night, here work times didn’t have to be Sunup to Sundown.

    Computer technology, though positive in it’s individuation of it’s user, also can isolate the user, while seemingly holding forth the promise of community, such as Farmville, XBox Live Games, and other social networking accessible from individuated technologies. In the end, you’re still sitting alone, on the bus, in your room and elsewhere.

    In Seattle we had this texting thing going on where one person would text to all their friends to gather at a certain place and do something silly at a certain time, and then those friends would text other friends, etc… So on the appointed day and time all these people would simultaneously gather in public, do something silly and then part. This didn’t last long, because among all the other reasons, such as time etc., people were still isolated acting alone in a crowd.

    As a game theorist and game designer, I see the interactions online draw lines and interactions which modify our behavior towards each other. We treat the person behind the Starbucks counter as an object rather than a person. Could it come from the fact that all our interactions are with objects with mimic the fawning attention we crave, but is hollow in depth and feeling, so we learn to objectify and shut off just like our machines?

    Good article, well written, thank you for discussion this topic.

  4. innofresh

    So true. Advancing technology is not something that should be stopped and certainly not something that can be stopped, but rather an evolving form to find a balance and adaptation to…that’s right, a dependency. If Darwin wrote about the theory of evolution in terms of technology, I wonder what that would sound like.

    At work, I encourage human contact and dialoque.
    At home, I encourage family interaction and respect.
    In reality, it’s easier to just send a text!

    Innofresh http://innofresh.wordpress.com/

  5. I agree that to use the word “addiction” is hype. I really believe that we’ve come to over-use the word because it reduces our own accountability for our dependence. Drugs, alcohol– those things are addictive and bigger than the user, and dramatic steps must be taken to overcome dependence on substances. However, technology dependence is not bigger than the user. We can all choose to unplug to a certain extent, but we don’t because we have become technology-dependent through our own habits.

    I think that it is important to recognize that our students and schools exist in a society that is technology-dependent. It’s our responsibility as educators not to ignore the real world our students exist in, but rather model for them how to use technology in an appropriate manner.

  6. I do believe that we have become too addicted to technology. You never see children outside playing anymore, they invite each other over for video games or if they are really savvy they just play each other online. The same behavior is reflected in adults.

    I know when I am not as a computer I check my emails via my smartphone and own more than one computer.

  7. “Twitter compresses our attention span”

    Ah, I can remember when MTV was blamed for that (I do it myself sometimes). How its ultra-fast editing became the standard of television and movies, and reduced our attention spans.

    I’ve never really though about if Twitter has shrunk the already short spans again…

  8. One could argue that schools should break the dependency on screens, a dependency that is shaping students’ cognitive and social habits. But I wonder if that’s a largely fruitless project, given that students spend up to 8 hours a day tethered to something digital.

    Perhaps it’s more important for schools to help students learn those technologies more responsibly–as aids to reflection, research and mental focus. Not easy work, to be sure.

  9. rhondabelle

    I had to cancel my smartphone contract because we couldn’t afford it. I was shocked to discover that I was actually SAD to not have it anymore. Next phone I get will be a cheapo pay as you go with texting and facebook and that’s it. I don’t know when I’ll get that next phone. Maybe never.

    Every summer we put our cable on vacation. Do I miss it? Well right now, yes, because due to medical stuff I’m stuck in the house and am not allowed to get outside and go for walks. So instead my internet usage has increased dramatically. Once I’m able to get outside and take the baby for walks though, I’m not going to miss it that much. My internet usage will decrease drastically too.

    My kids will have limited computer/tv/video game time. There’s nothing wrong with having to go outside and play. God forbid we get a little bit of wind exposure. If one is worried about sun exposure, well that’s what sunscreen is for. My kids most certainly will NOT have an ipad until they are old enough to be able to go out and get a job and pay for it themselves.

  10. Eldon Reeves

    I agree with what you say – if nothing else, I find that although a computer can let me get work (studying) done faster and more efficiently, usually it doesn’t. I think this is partly because starting at a screen for long periods of time sucks, and partly because of the ever present distraction of the internet.

    As an educational technology, I don’t believe it works much better than traditional pen and paper based learning for the most part.

  11. I’m a teacher, and I’ve seen both sides of technology. I love that my students can use it for research (once they learn to discern between good and bad websites to source), but I’ve seen teachers go for technological projects that emphasizes fluff and flashiness over content (taking the meat out of a novel, and reducing it to a Power Point or digital poster, for example). There are plenty of insightful things to be found with any technology (without it, where would discussions like this be?). It’s all in, as others have said, what you choose to do with something. Nice article!

  12. alanfriday55

    An interesting thing is beginning to happen in schools. It used to be that if you asked school children if they wanted ice creams as a reward or time on the computers, they would choose the computers. Now, however as technology is not so new and children are bought up with it, it is becoming old-hat. We are moving full cycle in this respect and children are choosing the ice cream again. ‘Coming full cycle, so to speak! To them most of these new gadgets are just advances or improvements on the same theme.

  13. I love technology. Throw in some vodka (not on the technology), and things can get interesting.

    However, part of my day job requires me to rip the cell phones out of the hands of 16-year-olds. They can’t live without texting for like 7 seconds, and it shows when they write things in their shakespeare essays like “LOL Shakespeare!”

  14. I think the reason people aren’t objecting to giving children laptops is becuae it is generally understood that the technology would be used for educational purposes, not entertainment.

    If proponents of 1:1 laptops included the opportunities for children to become distracted with internet games, entertainment sites, and other forms of distraction, the proposition would be much less enticing.

    As long as technology is used in more educational ways, I am all for it, regardless of whether it’s an lcd screen or paper.

  15. It’s certainly addiction, but it’s also driven hugely by consumerism. There are probably an oil spill’s worth of petroleum products in all the discarded computers, phones, CDs, etc. in landfills only because we had to have the next, better toy.

  16. Joe

    Some fantastic comments here to a very interesting article.

    I think we need schools to be a balance to the digital world and to teach kids about reality. The virtual world will suck them in via the media without the school needing to be involved. Kids should learn real skills, get outside and communicate.

    If we let technology take over to such a degree as it’s starting to then what happens to art and how do we survive when the big computer crashes?

    Tom Hodgkinson has written a great book called ‘The Idle Parent’ and he has some very interesting thoughts on this subject.

  17. This blog brings up a great issue of technology dependency. However, I wonder if our society’s technology dependency is based on our media dependency. Its hard not to be on a computer without multiple windows opened to news, weather and entertainment and have all those windows sync-ed up at once. The people in my generation don’t know what to do without multi-tasking with our media. As I sit here and wrtie this comment I am watching television and texting my next door neighbor. Later I will be on my facebook account, chatting with friends, still continuing to text, and watch television.
    Is my attention span shorter . . . possibly. Can I manage to carry on or listen to 10 different conversations and keep up with each on . . .yes. Can I deal with one media at a time . . .yes, but who wants to.
    Think about this the next time you go to a meeting, and the youngest person in the room is on a laptop, blackberry, and contributing information to the meeting. My generation has been programmed that way. From the television, to the computer, to smart phone, we have been trained to do multi-task with technology.
    If you don’t think that technology dependency has anything to do with media dependency, try this. . .the next time you are in a meeting and is all there is to do is listen to the presenter, listen to when people start adjusting, stretching, shifting weight, or change how they are sitting. That should happen approximately every 8-10 mins. And it should happen almost in unison. 8-10 mins. is the same amout of time it takes for a television show to go from one commercial break to another.
    We have all been trained.

  18. metanoia

    Thanks for bringing this to ‘discussion’
    You might want to read Neil Postman’s ‘Technopoly’ and Jaques Ellul’s ‘The Technological Society’.

    What do you think is a way out? What alternatives do you see as viable? Is there a ‘return to innocence’?

  19. Cell phones and all personal electronic gadgets were banned on the high school campus where I teach. Reasoning: kids were texting each other from 6 feet away, rumors were spreading via email/facebook/text which were starting fights on campus.
    Reality: that’s the way kids behave. Devices are merely an exponentially faster medium of communication.
    Reality: there were fights and distractions before cell phones – when I was in middle school, passed notes started fights, yet there was no ban placed upon paper.

    Should we be eager to implement use of technology in classroom?

    Yes. To not embrace would be like asking the neanderthals above to go back to eating bloody meat and shivering from the elements.

    Yes, but as a means of educating, not the end itself.

    This is the most pressing issue in education I would say, because the chasm is so deep between the belief systems which divide them.

    Fine article. Students need teachers and schools to lead them with technology, not merely manage them.

    • Jim Hagen

      “Students need teachers and schools to lead them with technology, not merely manage them.”

      Absolutely. And parents should do the same, not use technology as a baby sitter.

  20. Last Easter I ‘lent-ed’ from Facebook, because I knew that I had grown a too strong dependency on it. But don’t worry I am back on it, it was a good experiment for me to spend 40 or so days not looking at it and thinking about the effect of technology and being sooo hyper-connected.

    It feeds our insatiable lust for more products and relationships, it increases our awareness of what the Jones’ have and so feeds our greedy habits. Perhaps it is that the more you know about people the more power you feel or the more important, connected and loved you feel? But I personally am seeing the harm of too much Facebook and its addictive charm. Perhaps “hyper-connectivity” gives you the opportunity to know everything about anyone, which perhaps gives you the illusion of feeling connected, well-loved, and popular – even though you are just looking voyeuristic-ally into the lives of ‘friends’ who we hardly know.

    Its a false sense of security. And we play into it more than we think. We untag ourselves in photos we think we look fat and ugly in; we screen the photos we put up on Facebook; we judge others by the content they share; we accept any friend request to bump up our tally of popularity; we boast and brag about the latest gadgets we have bought, bands we have seen and holidays we have taken. We love to create an image for ourselves. We hunger to be loved, esteemed and important.

    Facebook and social media cannot add to your worth or value.

  21. essentialsimplicity

    We as a society have become dependent on such devices. But in order to function fully in today’s society it is a necessary dependancy. We all need email addresses for do many purposes as well as being contactable whereever we are (read mobile/cell phones). And it’s that cycle that is the problem but to make a statement and abandon such technologies is to turn yourself into a modern day leper.

  22. Divine order! I love internet, not to worship my twitter every 5 mins but it help me to connect to others. I also went into the season of living within my ears when I just listened to “my self”. Now, after the experiences and articles I read it all became clear of the risk of adiction to this technology. Without it we can be so slow into learning inmesurable stuff. For instance, I go to church here on the web (that’s creepy?) So what! I found a relevant place where they treat all people the same…finally. Regarding to other places for techno in my life, right now, all I do is to be aware of what is right. I understood that is true, we can minimize potential relationships’ feedback at home by not organizing our habits, or times. Is my experience.
    ~Awesome post!
    ~Great Love to you,
    Mirian from peelingtheorange. “)

  23. Pingback: Information overload? Nahhh…Now What Was I Doing? | East Coast by West

  24. lisa

    I admit that I LOVE my computer and cellphone and spend much time on it, but in reality if i get invited to a barbecue or get involved in an outdoor activity I do not bother with my phone or computer at all. There have been days that I was so busy or out enjoying myself that I have neglected my fb and email. we need to part from our technology loves and hit the good outdoors. My 8 yr old son still loves to ride his bike,skateboard, and play soccer and when he is not doing that then he might pick up his video game but i always encourage the outdoor playing first and he always chooses to hop on his bike and go(of course with his cellphone in pocket). I find the computer gives me the ability to read more and give me more reading material. I do love my books but someday I want to surf the web and read different several things in one night verses one story. Word press has caused an “addiction” for me but at the same time makes me write many comments and enjoy other peoples words. If we are reading and writing I dont think technology is so bad after all.

  25. As a human society, I think we are FAR too dependant on technology. What would we do without our computers, cell phones and other gadgets? Talk to each other in sentences longer than 140 characters? Bah! 🙂



    • I agree with you, and I think its a shame. but I also recognize that it is an inevitable part of modern society. I think it’s time we start to embrace it.

  26. ruralaspirations

    I’m still trying to figure out how school kids can find 8 other hours in the day for screen time. Do they ever sleep?

    • Touché – as yet, most kids don’t use computer-based technologies all that much in schools. Yes, there are exceptions, and the trend is for ever-increasing access, but by and large, kids’ education is still focused on book time and seat time.

  27. I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, until I was about 8 years old. I remember my grandfather taking me to his office, saying that he had “something special to show me.”

    He took me through the lobby, into a little compartment, which had sliding doors. The doors closed, the compartment shook for a while, the doors opened, and the room outside was not the lobby anymore. We were on the 5th floor.

    “We’re were in an elevator!” he said as we stepped out.

    My grandfather was proud of the fact that his office building was one of the first buildings in the whole country to have an elevator. I had never seen an elevator before, let alone been in one. Yet, to my young mind, there was nothing impressive about it. I knew the compartment moved up because I felt the movement when it shook. “What’s the big deal?” I must’ve thought.

    Perhaps that’s how all young minds work. You do A and you get Z as a result, and there’s nothing impressive about it, because we didn’t have many things to compare it with.


  28. I agree. Given that school-aged children’s brains are highly plastic and malleable, I think that new technology at school should be limited to supervised use. That is, children shouldn’t be able to check emails, look at facebook, or text message each other during class time, in order to train them to concentrate and think in focused ‘blocs’ of time. I guess it’s kind of like the important developmental milestone of learning delayed satisfaction…children who are better able to wait 30 minutes for 3 chocolates rather than eat 1 straight away are shown to be better adapted to life at later stages of life. Similarly, I think that we should be trained to put idle and fleeting thoughts of the cyber-world out of our minds for at least a one-hour class period in order to focus more discretely on the task at hand.
    I myself find that when studying for my masters, my mind wanders off on tangents (‘I wonder what so-and-so is doing?’, ‘I need to order that book off Amazon…’, ‘Perhaps I should wikipedia such-and-such for some more background…’) in a way like it never used to. I think it’s not the internet or technology per se that undermines our ability to concentrate, but the way in which is is deployed of late. Having grown up with the internet, I am feeling the effects of the facebook and twitter generation of internet use like never before, despite the fact that this upsurge in connectivity occurred well past the time when my malleable brain had ‘solidified’ into more stable networks.
    Interesting thoughts, thanks for the read!

  29. Terrific piece Larry. In July, I will be giving a presentation based on some research I’ve recently done for my organisation, at the UK’s first festival of Education sponsored by the Times, which goes right to the heart of why this bizarre situation has arisen. It is a fascinating story of how the technology has been both exploited and pushed, by various parties with vested interests.

  30. Computers do more than change the way we access information. They change the way we relate to each other, and the way we think about ourselves and the world. The change has been so quick and is so recent that we are still adjusting. This change is far greater than the industrial revolution, and consider all the issues that were created from that.

  31. Simply changed the way of our life, included in school. How the teachers give assignments, presents their lessons, the way students do their homework, and surely the reasons of not completed their assignments etc. Interesting, though it could be upsetting, still.

  32. An interesting topic to be sure. As the speed of technology increases, I think it does change how we live, work and relate to one another. Is developing technology the cause of our societal attention deficit disorder, reducing our ability to focus and think critically? Or is this just a reflection of the need to condense our time into shorter segments as the pace and demands of life constantly intensify?

    If you’re interested, here is a similar post on the subject: http://bit.ly/bd7rBH

  33. Excellent post.

    As a borderline Luddite, I find the increase in all of these technology gadgets – and the increase in people’s obsession with them – very disturbing. I don’t like the advertsing and consumer hype surrounding these electronic gadgets, because it takes advantage of people who feel insecure about buying the latest “hot” items in order to feel accepted in mainstream society.

    I have found that people who obsess over electronic gadgets oftentimes have the desire to hide from personal relationships, and sadly, the current electronics craze feeds into this.

    It’s as if we’re living in some Orwellian technocracy, which I think is very creepy.

  34. Addiction gadget very bad habbit. In fact someone addiction handphone, facebook in internet etc. I am live in Indonesia , Central Java and addiction to gadget is realism in my office, my friend, and they forget people in near and interest to handphoe or on line internet . Thanks, sorry my English bad.

  35. Songbird

    Well, I don’t know about anyone else but I certainly don’t remember e.g. telephone numbers anymore as they are stored in my phone- and when it comes to attention span- yes, Twitter has contributed greatly, but so have the use of internet in general… technology certainly evolves forward, not so sure about us…

  36. Janice

    Thoughtful analysis of societal norms of technology usage vs. schools’ usage – why is one “bad” and the other revered?

    GW Jr.

  37. Its really a double-edged sword, which I think you do a good job of highlighting here. I definitely focus on the fact that we have access to more information than ever before now, rather than just that we have more distractions than ever.

  38. njaiswal

    Well we move ahead with the technology of the time, so we should learn to deal with it. I’m probably on of those ‘dependents’, because I feel that keeping pace with technological advancements is essential. And staying connected with them too.

    A very relevant issue, and a good post! 🙂


  39. Tech is a fantastic tool for those that can understand and control it, but it can also augment bad habits and behaviors. In the end it’s still just a tool – the end user is responsible for how it is used

  40. Pingback: Our generation (and society) are too technological dependent. | The Mindful Thinker

  41. joshua

    Technology is a tool which helps people lessen their work. yes, it is a bad influence to those who are not able to control the use of it, but it is helpful one to those who knows the proper use of it.

  42. Pingback: Technology dependency | Leatherandlace

  43. Pingback: Technology addiction or Dependence « The 2Fer Quarterly

  44. Pingback: My electronic life: Technological hermits | The Anonymous Blueprint

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