Cellphone vibration syndrome and other signs of tech addiction

It turns out that the phantom cellphone vibration syndrome is fairly common. Ask around. See if you can find someone who believed the smartphone in their pocket was vibrating but found when they checked, there was nothing new. No call. No text.

There’s a growing body of research on phantom vibrations and many of the other problems associated with technology obsession, all of which is explored by Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in his new book, iDisorder.

Rosen, who earned his bachelors degree in mathematics before getting a Ph.D in psychology, examines technology’s impact on our lives. His book, which combines the latest research with his own experience, anecdote and observation, warns about obsessive technological use and offers practical advice for keeping tech at bay.

In this interview, Rosen talked about some of the issues associated with unhealthy, or least unreasonable, levels of tech obsession.

What is iDisorder or technology addiction? Is it obsessive compulsive disorder, narcissism, depression, anxiety - none of this or all of the above?

iDisorder is any psychological disorder that appears to be either caused by or potentially exacerbated by your relationship with media and technology. But, in fact, it’s all of the ones you mentioned. Interacting with our technology can make us display signs and symptoms of everything ranging from depression to mania to narcissism to voyeurism - you name it. The research is all showing that it appears that these kinds of technologies can, unless we’re watching what we’re doing, lead to these kinds of issues.

If I check my cell phone every few minutes, what does that indicate?

I would want to know what you are doing and what you are feeling when you do that. If you pick up your phone and check your text messages, and you go ‘I got to text right back to this person,’ I would suggest that what you’re feeling is anxiety about not being able to check in. That’s one of the underlying issues of obsessive compulsive behaviors. If you got on your phone every couple of minutes and I saw you make this big smile and say ‘I got an email from an old friend and it felt so good,’ then I would say that it’s probably an addictive kind of behavior. It’s that split between a level of addiction, meaning we’re trying to get pleasure, versus our level of obsession or compulsion, meaning we’re trying to reduce our anxiety.

Talk about the phantom vibration syndrome, where it feels as if the cell phone is vibrating but it isn’t. Why does this happen?

We’re just starting to see research on this. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon. I think it comes again from anxiety. Our body is always in waiting to anticipate any kind of technological interaction, which usually comes from a smartphone. With that anticipatory anxiety, if we get any neurological stimulation, our pants rubbing against our leg for example, you might interpret that through the veil of anxiety, as “Oh, my phone is vibrating.”

And this syndrome is fairly common?

Yes, I have not found anybody whom I’ve talked to, particularly males, because they carry their phone in their pocket, who can admit that it has never happened. There are a lot of people who say they are patting their pocket all day long.

Are phantom cell phone vibrations a reason for worry?

The worry part comes from this: Is it overwhelming anxiety and is that anxiety getting in the way of anything else in your life? Most of the people will report that what it does is it gets in the way of their social relationships, because they are constantly focusing on reducing the anxiety about what they’re missing out on their phone. At dinner, they’re not paying attention to their family and kids. When they go out, they are not paying attention to a movie because they are always on edge and worried. If they are at a family gathering they are always checking their phone constantly. If it’s that severe, then it’s time to re-conceptualize what you are doing.

Is there a metric that tells you whether you are overusing information technology, or is it only a problem if it interferes with your social interactions?

If it interferes with a lot of things—your social interactions, your work product and your family responsibilities - those are the kinds of signs that you always look for in addiction and compulsive behavior.

How do I recognize this problem in the workplace?

You recognize it in co-workers who can’t go more than five minutes at a meeting without checking their phone. You recognize it in co-workers who get constantly distracted in the middle of a task, and the distraction usually comes from an email or text, or an internal need to check something on the Web. It really comes down to the business world as sort of rudeness, or inattentiveness, or lack or productivity or reduced productivity.

Are there steps managers can take to mitigate it in the workplace?

Absolutely. What I think managers need to do is the following: If you are having problems at your meetings, which most managers are because your staff constantly has their Blackberries, iPhones, laptops and iPads there, and you know that they aren’t just taking notes, what you need to be doing is something I call a tech break. This means that everybody brings their technology to the meeting, and gets one minute to two minutes to check in with your technology, and then you turn it off and upside down in front of you. And usually starting after 15 minutes of meeting, there is another one to two minute tech break, and then 15 minutes of more meeting and then another tech break. This starts to train your staff that the downside of not checking in every five seconds isn’t as bad as they thought. Eventually you can lengthen the time without breaks to 20 minutes, to 25 and to 30 minutes - potentially 30 minutes. I’ve never seen anybody get it longer than 30.

Is this something businesses are beginning to do formally?

Absolutely. It takes some training because their staffs are so hooked [into] these devices that it’s no immediate success, but eventually people get it.

Are people who work in information technology at greater risk of developing problems in this area?

No, I don’t think so. I think everybody is. On some level, software developers may even have an easier time, because they have a bit more focus or more need to focus. But I can honestly say the research shows that software developers focus about three to five minutes before they switch tasks, and that’s about what we find with students and medical students studying. I think we’re at the point where we carry something in our pockets that is more powerful than any of us ever imagined.

A lot of companies are developing wired workplaces, in the sense that employees can get access to their work regardless of whether it’s a company-owned device or a personal smartphone. Won’t the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) push exacerbate the problem?

I do believe it probably will. I think it’s (BYOD) a good idea. Businesses are starting to realize that it’s nice to have a dedicated Blackberry just for your work, but it’s also nice to have your employees to be on 24-by-7 because they are carrying the device they’re using. I do think that’s going to be a problem because then you’re multiplying it by two, your device is both your personal device and business device so there is twice as much free-floating anxiety.

How do you counterattack that?

There are two things you can do. You don’t have to carry your device 24-by-7. What I suggest is you develop your own tech break. About every couple of hours find one way to get away from all of it, phones, computers, everything—for 10 to 15 minutes. You do what neuroscientist call ‘resetting your brain.’ There are tons of activities that we know reset your brain. Taking a walk in nature, looking at clouds, looking at a picture book (not on your computer), exercising for a few minutes, laughing, talking to somebody, speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument. Our brain is at a constant, high-activation level and we need time to let it mellow, rest and reset, so then we can better process the information.

A lot of people use LinkedIn and Facebook for professional as well as social reasons, but you argue that the reliance or heavy use of these platforms can lead to problems. Why is that?

First, let me say that I’m a fan of social media. I find it an amazingly powerful tool. Having said that, I think that the way social media is right now, it is promoting obsessive behaviors, it is promoting the constant need to check in. I am the worst at this. I am constantly checking in to see if there are comments on my site, because I want to jump on them. I am constantly checking in on Facebook, and one of the things that I have had to do is moderate this kind of behavior. Social media is intensely compelling.

Are there societal dangers?

The major societal issue is not about the social media. The social media research tends to be coming out as flipping to the positive side. We are getting more (from social media) than we might be losing. My concern is smartphones, which I refer to as WMDs (wireless mobile devices) but I think they are also potential weapons of mass destruction. Where I see the problem is in two situations. One is in the family, the other in gatherings of friends, where you are spending too much time checking your phone and responding to things on your phone. I don’t care if you claim you are multitasking. You cannot be attending to a text message and getting what your friend across the table in the restaurant is telling you completely. You might get the words, but you’re not getting the context, the emotions and the feelings. You’re not really paying attention. The same thing happens in the family. I see these devices as being very divisive to the family unless we set very clear guidelines about when they are acceptable and when they are not. As soon your kid gets an iPhone you may as well be talking to him about the right time use it and the wrong time.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick’s RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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