Logging on and zoning out: the “soft addiction” epidemic of the internet age

I just wrapped my last class for the semester at the university where I teach. I teach a class on Addictive Behavior in their graduate psychology program. It’s a fun class, but I’ve noticed an interesting thing over the past five years since I started teaching.

Every semester, the students are getting more and more zombie-like during class. Every semester, I am seeing more faces staring at their computer screens during class intead of paying attention (probably Facebooking or emailing as opposed to writing notes). Or texting on their phone. Or otherwise multi-tasking or engaging in technological brain-numb while I’m talking.

Now I realize that they could be doing this because my lectures are incredibly boring. I’d like to think I’m a dynamic and funny professor, but am humble enough to acknowledge that is a possibility that I just plain suck. But in talking to other professors, this “zoning out” thing seems to be a university-wide epidemic. It’s gotten so bad that there was some serious discussion amongst the faculty as to how to deal with it.

Let me point out, again. I am talking about grad students. Not junior highers. Not 18-year-olds. These are adults, with 4+ years of college behind them, seeking a post-graduate education that they are paying out the nose for at $400 per credit unit.

So this semester, in their first class, I laid down the law: No staring at laptop screens in class. No typing in class. If you wanna write notes, use your pen. But be present in class. Look at me while I’m talking. Talk back. Participate.

After I gave my “allow me to ruin your classtime social networking party” speech, I launched into the evening’s lecture, which just so happened to be an exploration of chemical addictions vs. process addictions. And suddenly I had this epiphany: the trend I am seeing is a growing number of students who are accustomed to zoning out, distracting themselves from reality, and unable to listen to one live person talk for any number of minutes.

Kind of a problem for people interested in doing talk therapy all day.

It makes me wonder how our advanced technology is affecting our ability to listen and to be in relationship with others. (And by relationship, I mean one-on-one, as opposed to Facebook friends). Are we becoming a society so entangled by our computers and phones that we no longer know how to relate in the real world? Is there an emerging generation of computer-addicted young adults who need their laptop like they need air and water? Is internet addiction a new trend?

Is the movie WALL-E coming true??

In my lecture, I talk about the reality of process addictions, and how they can be just as dangerous as chemical addictions. I talk about how people can swap gambling, or pornography, or shopping, or any other number of mind-numbing activities to avoid reality. It’s scary to think how many of the kids growing up today will struggle with an addiction to technology, computers, phones, and video games. It’s so pervasive that it’s even commonplace.

It is enough to give me pause, and to re-evaluate my own time spent at the computer, and the tether I often feel to my activities online. If I’m honest, I know that I am often not living to my values by spending time on facebook instead of with my kids, or by texting a friends some funny tidbit while out with my husband, or by letting my son spend too much time on his computer game because it gives me a break. Our technology has given us great advances in connecting with others, and yet the connection at times seems to be growing wider in breadth and yet much more shallow in depth.. I do sometimes think that a spiritual and social shift is happening right in front of us. But are we are all too busy checking our inbox to notice what is happening? Or all we all so entrenched in this process that we don’t even really care?

What are your thoughts about our technology addiction? Do you think it’s changing the way we relate to others?

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