Are You Addicted to Technology?

Tethered by Tech: Digital devices are blurring the line between work and personal time. Are we too plugged in?












Checked your email today? Logged into Facebook or Twitter? Surfed the web? Reading this story online — or on a smartphone?

Conventional wisdom says that these actions apply to a growing number of people with increasing frequency. A recent survey by the makers of an email plug-in concluded that nearly three-quarters of Americans who check their work email outside of business hours do so while on vacation, on sick days, and weekends. Another survey, conducted by mobile-mapping company Telenav, found that one-third of respondents would rather forgo sex for a week than surrender their cell phones; one in five would rather go shoeless than phoneless; and 70 percent said they would quit drinking alcohol as long as they could keep their mobile devices. (Who needs 12 steps when “there’s an app for that”?)

It can’t be overstated: Technology is profoundly pervasive. But is it also invasive? That question inspired a new study led by University of Michigan researcher Joy Beatty. “Is this technology freeing people by making time more fluid or flexible?” Beatty asks. “Or are they being chained to the technology?”

An associate professor of organizational behavior at U/M-Dearborn, Beatty, along with a co-researcher from Boston, studied MBA students’ use of technology for workplace time management. The study participants were drawn from a range of professional backgrounds including education, medicine, and automotive. The results have not yet been published, but Beatty cites a major finding: The expectations of connectedness increase as employees move up within the ranks of an organization. Simply put, the more responsibility one takes on at work, the more pressure there is to respond to work-related email during personal time.

“Are employers making you get the smartphone and making you connect your [work] email and giving rules that say you have to check your email every hour? I’m not seeing anything like that,” Beatty says. “I am seeing people willingly … adopting it and not really asking questions about it.” It’s just become an implicit reality of corporate America.

Perhaps the adoption rate is so high because mobile communication isn’t a phenomenon limited to the office. At the time of this writing, Facebook boasted more than 800 million users.

“In many cases, it seemed like people didn’t mind,” Beatty says. “[Respondents] appreciated being able to check their work calendar on a Sunday so they knew what to expect in the coming week.”

Work-sanctioned smartphones are also something of an office status symbol, Beatty says, because many companies don’t allow lower-level employees to check their work email on personal devices or after hours. As in, “Work pays for my cell phone because I’m important enough to be needed at any time.”

But maintaining this mindset of 24/Seven connectedness has resulted in a growing concern among respondents that they were too “plugged in,” Beatty says. In a world of blinking notifications signaling unread messages or a new-friend request or follower, where professional success is measured by the number of Blackberries strapped to one’s belt, exactly how does one unplug completely?

There’s no magic pill for that, but there are treatment facilities for extreme cases. While Internet addiction disorder (IAD) — which encompasses online and computer addiction — is not listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), there’s a growing base of support advocating its inclusion in the next edition, set for a May 2013 publication. Research is being conducted at Harvard University’s Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital. There, IAD is dealt with like pathological gambling or compulsive shopping. Treatment often consists of a combination of cognitive behavior therapy and medication.

Proponents of including IAD in the upcoming DSM-5 publication were bolstered last year by the findings of a study titled “The World Unplugged,” an international experiment that asked volunteers from 12 universities around the world to spend 24 hours without access to computers, phones, or media of any kind. Many reportedly experienced physical and psychological symptoms similar to those more commonly linked to drug or nicotine withdrawal — fidgeting and anxiety, for example.

Still, there are some who reject IAD’s clinical legitimacy, claiming that Internet and/or computer addiction are merely symptoms of other already existing impulse-control disorders.

Culturally, at least, there’s no denying technology’s impact has only intensified since DSM-IV’s publication in 2000. “The fact that it’s now possible to know immediately seems to have created this drive that one must know immediately,” Beatty says.

Just Google: “Is technology good or bad?” The answer — buried in the 35 million results — is not so simple. “What you need to know now are the skills for knowing how to do an appropriate Google search,” Beatty says, “And how to assess the quality of the sources that you’ve found.”

Another useful skill is making technology work for you. After all, there’s at least one professional task that computers always perform better than humans — automated out-of-office responses arrive at their destinations faster than human replies.

With that in mind, consider letting technology do the work next weekend.

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