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(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)
(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)

Digital overload: How we are seduced by distraction Add to ...

“Of course, everything can’t speed up,” says David Levy, a professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. “You can’t speed up the time needed to be intimate with one another. Thinking is not an activity you can speed up. It needs time to muse and reflect, and some of the things we need to do in order to think, like walk, or read deeply, or even take naps, simply don’t fit into this globalizing idea of more-faster-better.”

If you thought juggling a conference call in the minivan on the way to hockey practice was stressful, wait for it. At London’s first Wearable Technology Show this month, Steve Brown, whose title at Intel is Chief Evangelist and Futurist, cheerfully promised that “computers are getting smaller and smaller, closer and closer to our fingertip, our nerve endings, our brains.”

Before they implant themselves any further, we might want to set limits on our maxed-out mental inboxes.

‘Unchecked infomania’

How do we give up the digital fix? Collecting Twitter followers is like a virtual pat on the back. Checking Facebook in the middle of the day can be energizing and mood-boosting. We get a rush – what scientists have called a “dopamine squirt” – when anticipating the contents of a potentially juicy e-mail, much like pulling the arm on a slot machine, says Neema Moraveji, director of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University. Sometimes, the stress of distraction pales against our fear of missing out.

But it’s all about the dose, and being connected 24/7 doesn’t encourage restraint. Facebook, when visited obsessively, has been linked to depression and eating disorders in teenage girls. Managing a stack of e-mails – only to have them pile up again – has been found to raise heartbeats and blood pressure. At Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, researchers observed that even simple web searches caused people to take shorter breaths, or hold their breath entirely, restricting oxygen to their brain. Usually, they weren’t even aware of it.

“When you are at a computer, reacting to things, wondering if things are happening, there is a chronic vigilance, a feeling always being on the edge of your seat,” Dr. Moraveji says.

The behaviour is called e-mail or screen apnea, a phrase that technology consultant Linda Stone first blogged about in 2008, when she noticed she was holding her breath while sending e-mails. Essentially, explains Ms. Stone, the flight-or-fight response kicks in whether humans are running away from a tiger or anxiously confronting an overflowing inbox. In the short term, that response is extremely useful – it saves you from the tiger, it even channels your energy for that important PowerPoint presentation.

But if you never, or rarely, shut it down, this can lead to long-term stress and its potential risks: teeth-grinding, diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Much as we like to believe otherwise, most human beings are lousy multi-taskers. Faced with too many jobs, the brain’s working memory gets overwhelmed and makes mistakes. Ms. Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple employee, also coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe how being inundated with tasks and interrupted by technology chronically splinters our focus.

In fact, being “always on” may look good in a society that glorifies busyness, but it’s a killer intellectually. Last year, researchers at King’s College Institute of Psychiatry in London reported the constant use of e-mail and other social media – what they called “unchecked infomania” – led to a temporary 10-point drop in the IQ of the study’s participants. That was twice as much as pot smokers. Another clear sign of stumbling brain power: In a Pew Research Center survey, 22 per cent of adults who text admitted being so distracted that they’ve run into something – an event common enough that one London neighbourhood has announced plans to pad its lampposts for safety.

But it will take more than a smack from a wrought-iron pole to get us to give up our tech fixations. So the boss is stepping in. The economic cost of distraction – both in lost productivity and employee stress – is now tallied well into the billions of dollars. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that after being interrupted, it takes 25 minutes for workers to return to their original tasks. If that happened once or twice, why worry? But tech workers in the study were found to switch activities, either voluntarily or because someone demanded it, every three minutes.

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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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