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Smartphones, social networking and texting - our new technology reality, but a local psychologist professor says that new reality can cause us to exhibit symptoms of psychological disorders such, as narcissim, depression and obsessive compulsive disorde

March 28, 2012 1:08 p.m.


Dr. Larry Rosen, author of iDisorder-Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us

Related Story: iDisorder: Does Technology Feed Psychological Disorders?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Checking e-mail before you roll out of bed, texting during a movie, keeping your smart phone on your restaurant table during dinner. All these activities may seem normal to you. A new book argues that an excessive attachment to high-tech devices can actually increase a tendency toward a number of psychological illnesses. Of the devices may not be making us crazy, but they sometimes make us act like we are. Psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen is my quest, author of the new book iDisorder: Understanding our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its hold on us. Welcome to the show.

ROSEN: Thank you very much for having me on the show today.

CAVANAUGH: I just want to let our listeners know, if they have an example or they think they're suffering from iDisorder, some obsessive uses of technology, they can give us a call. 1-888-895-5727. Doctor Rosen, people might think this is just another sort of grumpy, anti-technology book. Why did you decide to write iDisorder?

ROSEN: Actually, I'm very pro-technology, I'm probably the biggest geek around. But I realize when you start looking around our world and restaurants become a haven for cellphones on the table, and people feel no compulsion, no problem with pulling out the phone, texting something, tweeting something, that we have a problem. That we are all being compelled to show signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders.

CAVANAUGH: That is the crux of the book, the fact that using these devices the way that some people do do show signs of different disorders. And you outline them in the book. What are some of the psychological disorders and phobias you see exhibited in the way we use, let's say social media?

ROSEN: One is narcissism. If you look at, say, twitter posts or Facebook posts, what you tend to see is a lot of I, I, I, me, me, me, which is one of the signs of being narcissistic. I also talk a lot in the book about obsessive compulsive disorder. Oh, wait I think I left my phone out there, oh, no, I'm really worried about it. That's the kind of thing we see. People pat their pockets all the time. They're worried about what they might be missing out on. There's a disease called fear of missing out, FOMO. And we are basically being distracted by the technology. But I talk a lot about how we are distracting ourselves from inside of our brains. We are thinking, gee, I wonder what texted me, gee, did somebody like my post that I posted on Facebook last night? So we are basically distracting ourselves to death.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're not saying that the use of high-tech devices is actually creating psychological conditions, are you?

ROSEN: No, what I'm actually saying is that because of the way we are choosing to use them, we are ending up showing signs and symptoms of these disorders. It's not the technology. We can't blame the technology on this. We have to blame ourselves. The technology makes it very alluring to Ubeeps,ing vibrations, buzzes. But we're the ones that are doing this. We're doing this to ourselves.

CAVANAUGH: Now, are in the book, iDisorder, you use a number of examples of the way this actually manifests itself in our lives. And one of them that you talked about is driving to an appointment, let's say, to a class, and you realize that you've forgotten your phone. Your cellphone. And turning around and going back home instead of just going onto your destination and using the equipment that you'll find there, or heaven forbid, are being out of touch for a couple of hours. What does that tell us about our reliance on these devices?

ROSEN: Well, what it does tell us is -- and we know this from all of our research that we do, that we are really hooked into these devices. These devices are now part of us. Of we carry a little computer with us in our pocket, in our pulse all day long. And this computer is more powerful than most of the computers I've used in my life. So it's very alluring. If we're in the middle of a movie, and we have a question about a character in the movie, we can bend over and very carefully check and Google it and look at what it is regardless of who around us might be annoyed by what we're doing.

CAVANAUGH: And it is annoying sometimes.

ROSEN: It is very annoying! And this is one of the examples that came to me when I decided to write this book was watching how many people, first of ALL, couldn't shut their phones off during a movie. But as soon as the movie ended, other 90 minutes later, everybody was quick, checking their phone! Checking Facebook! Texting! Madly as though they had to rush to do something really important. 90 minutes doesn't seem like that long a time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, for people who don't -- aren't really afflicted with any sort of psychological disorder, we can sort of joke around and make fun about our reliance on these high-tech devices. But for people who do have problems, let's say, with a narcissistic personality or obsessive compulsive disorder, can these actually be dangerous for someone who suffers or has a tendency these particular malads?

ROSEN: You know, in the book, I talk a lot about normal people showing these kind of signs. But for people that do have, say, obsessive compulsive disorder or ADHD, these devices are now way more alluring and enticing than they were just 2-five years ago. The graphics on video gams are amazing, and you can get hooked on it. The graphics on watching TV on your iPAD is amazing. And you can literally get sucked into the device. It's not the device, though, it's your psychology that's sucking you in. And part of what I spend a lot of time talking about in the book is how to cure yourself. And of it's not about giving up technology. I'm the last person to tell people to give up technology. I'm the biggest geek there is. But there are some things you can do to keep yourself sane and healthy. For example, if you're in a restaurant and everybody has their phone out, do something I call a tech break. Of you tell everybody at the table, okay, everybody, pick up your phone, take a look, text we have one minute. Everybody text, Facebook, whatever. Turn the phone on silent, put it upside down on the desk on the restaurant table. And what happens then is it's a stimulus to your brain that says in a certain amount of time, usually 15 minute, I'm going to get to check in with my cyber world. Now I can ignore it and have 15 minutes of conversation of the then you do a one-minute tech break, phone minutes of conversation, one-minute tech break. Works wonderfully

CAVANAUGH: I wouldn't think that people would comply!

ROSEN: I've got people doing it in business meetings, in family dinners, in restaurants, in classrooms. Even in if a classroom where the teacher is teaching. If the teachers have the cellphone in the class, you can start them off by letting them text and Facebook for one minute. Then you get their attention for 15 minutes. The trick in a classroom is for the first week, you use 15 minutes. Then the next week you enhance it to 20. And then you can probably get 25 or 30 minutes out of them of focus time.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Will eventually, if you work up to it. I've invited people if they want to share their stories about tech obsession or maybe some of the things they've done to try to break that hold of the smart phone and join the conversation. Now, doctor, is there one type of social media such as Twitter or Facebook, that you are perhaps most concerned about?

ROSEN: I think I have to say the No.†1 concern is either Facebook or texting. And I'm not quite sure. A lot of that depends on the person's age. But I would have to say it's Facebook, which now occupies about one out of every 4.5 minutes on the Internet alone is probably the culprit for a lot of this. Most Facebook activities can either be done on the home on a laptop or a desk top, or on the run on your smart phone. And because what happens is when people are on Facebook, they're behind a glass screen, and they tend to not think about the people at the other end of their message, at the other end of what they're saying. So they tend to say maybe more hurtful things, thoughtless things, and so I talk a lot in the book about how you can moderate your use of this, spend some time thinking about what you're saying before you say it.

CAVANAUGH: And you also make a point of when you're reading someone's Facebook page, see how often they say I and me and -- what does that tell you about someone who will be using those kinds of pronouns over and over again?

ROSEN: What's really interesting is there's research that shows that those people who use those kind of pronouns more often, and also people who have their profile picture in Facebook just being a picture of them and not of other people, those people tend to be way more narcissistic. They have more of what we call normal narcissism or trait narcissism.

CAVANAUGH: You have quotes from people that you spoke to about this in your book, are and one of them says I know this guy on Facebook, he has his picture up there, and it doesn't look anything like him.

CAVANAUGH: It looks so much better than he does. And how many people have that?

ROSEN: Not only that. But how many people who might not be the happiest people in the world post only positive things about themselves? They're trying to put themselves out there in the best possible light. And that's probably not healthy. Of

CAVANAUGH: Is there any way that you can tell either for yourself or for someone else that the way they're using high-technology indicates that they have a deeper problem?

ROSEN: One of the things in every single chapter of the book, we have a quiz, an assessment tool so you can see if you're exhibiting these signs and symptoms. And I go through examples of people who have told us in it our research about their expressions of their psychiatric disorders of their psyche online. And so you can start to see yourself in these little vignettes of people out there. And I know a lot of them resonated with me because I see this every day. I see students in my class who cannot put their phone down during class. I allow them to text in class. Of then I tell them we're going to learn why you shouldn't be doing that, or better yet, we're going to learn when you can text, and when you shouldn't text.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Mitch is calling from Cardiff. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi there. Yeah, I was born in 1987, and I'm admittedly kind of a Luddite about technology and what not. But I feel that people who are a little bit younger than me, like born in 1990 and after, when I see them with their phones, they seem like they don't even have a chance, like to be able to disconnect, and even if they're working on papers and things like that, there's just so much time that's taken up with being distracted and can't really have normal conversations. And it seems weird to me that there's so much of a difference having grownup just a couple years later. So I was wondering if you could speak to that: It seems it's just totally normal to people, but it seems really dysfunctional to me.

ROSEN: What you're talking about is a very clear generational difference. You're a member of the net generation, you grew up with the Internet. They belong to a generation called the i-Generation, meaning they grew up with all of these tools that they could carry with them, take anywhere, and do anything. And yes, you are absolutely right. They are obsessed with technology. My concern is that we're now starting to look at a generation of kids born in the new millennium that we call generation C for connected, collaborative, creativity, all of these C words. And they are probably going to even be more hooked into technology. These kids now are getting iPhones when they're 5 and 6, they have the best technology available to them. My computer consultant is 9 years old.

CAVANAUGH: Well but is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe this is -- the phrase, are the new normal, maybe for people born earlier than that, looking at them, they look like they're crazy with their usage of these devices. But maybe this is now the new normal, with people having a small, powerful computer that they take with them everywhere.

>> Well, the new normal is odd. And it's not a bad thing. But I encourage parents, as soon as they give their kid an iPhone to play with, are as soon as they sit them up in front of a computer, that they moderate their use of it. Of not that it's bad, but kids at that age really need creative time, they need mommy time, daddy time. They need to learn how to interact with friends. And wee starting to see these communities who have communicated behind screens their whole life are not as good at communicating face to face.

CAVANAUGH: That's the flip side, people who feel empowered when they're online to say terrible things to other people that they would never do in a face-to-face conversation, right?

ROSEN: Right. There's this strange feeling that behind a screen, you are anonymous, and you can't see their face and you can't see them cry or be hurt. You just blurt out words by tapping a few keys, and you really do it thoughtlessly. One of the things that I talk about in the book is this concept of an E-waiting period. If you're going to write something you're going to post on Facebook, tweet, e-mail, whatever, what you want to do is write it, set it aside for maybe a minute to two minutes, let your brain clear out. I think a lot about the brain and how it works. Then go back and read that, and ask yourself, is this going to hurt somebody's feelings? Is this really what I want to say? Maybe I want to go back and take some of the Is and mes out, and write about wes and theys. Maybe I'm appearing very narcissistic and I don't want to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Should families make rules about tweeting and texting do you think? You said it in at the dinner table, in a restaurant, and a classroom. What about family?

ROSEN: One of the problems in the family situation is that everybody seems to be hooked, mom and dad are carrying Blackberries and iPhones, the kids have their own phones and games. And there have to be family rules. I spend a whole chapter on that. And that tech break works for family rules. Everybody wants to bring their phone to the table so they won't miss out in that 45 minute dinner, some important tweet or some important e-mail. And that's mom and dad too. So what you need to do is have these tech breaks. So you have specific set-apart times that you communicate. Then you want to ask kids questions about technology. So, what new apps have you found? What's fun? What websites have you discovered? What kind of new technology? So the parents need to then start listening for signs of their kids having problems with the technology or enjoying something and the parents need to explore it a bit more.

CAVANAUGH: It just makes me think, when television was introduced and kids sat hours and hours in front of the tube, their parents were worried about how they would turn out and whether or not they would have a limited attention span, etc. And it turns out that, well, yes! It did have that kind of an effect. But I'm wondering if it's going to take time, years before we really know what kind of an effect these high-tech devices and our attachment to them is going to have on our society.

ROSEN: It's a very interesting question. Television is a good example. Television, two things. It took about 38 years to permeate society. YouTube took one. Facebook took two. We're talking about a radical change in how fast these activities come in. And television is a passive activity. You just sit and suck it in. All the technology we have that we use are active activities. And you are constantly interacting. That's much more activating inner brain, much more alluring, and much more difficult to put down. Because even when it's not beeping and buzzing in your face, and you're not seeing all these websites and tabs on your browser, your brain is thinking constantly about what's going on, what you might be missing, what's out there, there's a YouTube video on cat, I should look at that! Then you get sucked in. And it's not uncommon for us to go, wow, where did the three hours just go? I just sat down to pipe out one e-mail and that was it. And wow.

CAVANAUGH: There's so much more on this subject to learn. The name of the book is I-disorder, understanding our obsession with technology and its hold on us. Thank you very much.

ROSEN: Thanks for having me on your shown. I appreciate it.