What's Happening to Us?

What's Happening to Us?
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Let me begin by saying I have a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, an e-reader and a smartphone. I use them all and think they're great technologic advances. In certain obvious ways, they're a boon. So I'm not some version of Grandpa Cranky-Pants complaining about the role of technology in our lives.

But something strange is definitely happening.

I read an article saying the average person checks his or her smart phone 150 times per day! This seemed unbelievable, so I read another article. It said 58 percent of smartphone users check their phones at least every hour, and a large number check them while in bed or in the bathroom. When at a meal with someone, 30 percent of people admit to checking their phones . When driving, 24 percent acknowledge checking their phones behind the wheel.

Mental health professionals debate whether Internet addiction should be a diagnosable disorder, and experts have discussed various reasons for people's obsession with cell phones.

According to the same study, 73 percent of people admitted they would feel "panicked" if they lost their devices.

Is there really something called Nomophobia -- intense fear of being disconnected because one's cell phone is not available? (Nomophobia is derived from "No Mobile Phone Phobia.")

Is there such a thing as "digital addiction"? Do you know a camp exists in California, called Camp Grounded, where adults go for digital detoxification?

On a more personal level, I've been in restaurants and have seen couples at nearby tables where the man and woman stare at and are busily thumbing/scrolling/tapping their smart phones. They barely talk with each other. I've seen two couples at a restaurant table, each person has a cell phone on the table and there is frequent checking. It's not even considered rude when in the middle of an exchange, one person reaches for a cell phone after it's dinged or beeped. I've been in restaurants where someone at my own table received a text and began texting back -- and literally absented herself from the company at hand. It was really annoying.

On a Metro North train last week, ready to exit at my stop, I looked about the car. Every person -- young, old, men, women, teens -- was deeply engrossed in using a smartphone or tablet. Each was scrolling, thumbing, reading, or talking on a device. No one was talking to anyone present. It was weird.

Okay, so we're changing as a society. There's now instant interconnectedness, a readily accessible digital stream of information and ease of communication with other people, even if they live continents away.

But let's look a little closer at the price we pay.

What if:

The conversation is banal and involves simply saying you're going to a coffee shop, and you're speeding obliviously through a supermarket parking lot.

What once was considered rude (breaking away from a face-to-face conversation to talk to someone else or check a text message) has now become the norm.

People frequently check for emails, texts, news or weather updates when there's no real reason to do so.

These phone checking habits blunt interaction with those actually present.

Some mental health professionals find commonalities between these behaviors and substance abuse. Some see them as part of a "compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder" (along with compulsive gambling, shopping, or excessive credit card use).

A recent article in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions showed young adults send out an average of 3,200 text messages per month.

About 54 percent of people check their phones while lying in bed.

Many people can't get through a meal without a quick Facebook or email check.

Most people acknowledge their phone checking/scrolling/texting behavior is severely heightened when sitting alone in a public place, like a restaurant. It makes me wonder what happened to people enjoying the occasional pleasure of their own company.

We know the role cell phones play in traffic accidents. Some Asian countries have established rehab centers for video gaming among young people.

As a psychiatrist, I wonder if technology use is turning us into a device-obsessed, remotely-accessed, digitally enhanced people where true relatedness is dampened and taking a back seat to digital connections. Communication with each other has never been easier, but are we really relating?

The jury may still be out. But it's a conversation worth having.

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