Is Technology Making Students Sick?

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I’m standing outside a popular yogurt shop in Miami when I notice three teenagers sitting on a nearby bench. They have mastered the art of eating their tasty treats while talking and texting. I’m just bothered that this isn’t an art worth mastering.

None of these teenagers show signs of healthy interaction, looking at their devices rather than each other. I’m disturbed that this scenario has become accepted behavior, and that students (as well as adults) are forgetting what it means to be human.

I decide to reach out to Dr. Larry Rosen, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. Rosen uses the term “iDisorder” to explain how psychiatric maladies—including communication disorders, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissistic-personality disorder, hypochondriasis, schizoaffective and schizotypal disorders, body dysmorphia, voyeurism, and addiction—are connected to how we relate to technology and media.

My colleague in the English Department, Kenley Smith, refers me to a quote by Stephen King: “We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones.” I’m grateful for King, and not just for his literary contributions. His stories make the reality of what Rosen explains almost palatable.

“We’re seeing any of those anxiety disorders potentially being predicted most likely by the kinds of technologies that are more communication‑based,” Rosen says. “I hear this a lot from teachers  around my campus: ‘My students have no ability to refrain from checking their text messages during class, or checking in with Facebook during class.’”

Some teachers prevent these types of distractions by collecting phones at the start of class. But that doesn’t mean that some students aren’t still biting their nails or grinding their teeth, focusing more on the end of class than what happens during it.

Unfortunately, this anxiety also negatively impacts sleep—which, of course, growing kids need even more of to function properly.

“We’re in the middle of writing up a study that we did on sleep,” Rosen says. “One of the biggest disrupters of sleep is what you do with your phone when you go to bed. If you leave it on, which about 40 percent of kids do, or if you leave it on vibrate, which is what about another 30‑40 percent of kids do, you’re going to be constantly checking it. That’s going to disrupt your sleep cycle.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that concerns me. I’m deeply worried about my students’ longing for mass approval on social networking sites, feeding into narcissistic behavior. Rosen explains that just because a user sees a post option, that’s not a command to post immediately (or even at all). He recommends a different approach:

“Perhaps it’s better if when you write a post, or when you write an email or a text, or comment on somebody’s website or anything, it doesn’t really matter what it is, that you let it sit for a minute, 30 seconds. Let your brain do something different. Get energized from a different vantage point. Then come back and look at it afresh, and ask yourself, ‘Is this really what I want to say?’ Part of what we start to find is that when people ask themselves that, they go, ‘Oh yeah, this looks really narcissistic. I need to take out this I and throw in another couple of ‘we’s’ so that I won’t come across looking like a flaming narcissist.”

As I speak with Rosen, I can’t help but feel that technology has played a key role in making a growing number of people become mindless automatons. Even against their better judgment, people violate obvious social norms to check their devices.

“The question we should be asking now, in 2013, is what’s going on between our left and right ears that’s compelling us to do things that we know intuitively, or cognitively, are not good for us,” Rosen says.

Interview transrcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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