Digital Distractions

Is technology supporting or threatening our well-being?

Soothing candlelight warms the room with a mellow glow, and soft music eases everyone into deep relaxation. You’re slipping into a meditative state, holding your yin yoga pose, when a phone rings. It stops. Relief. It rings again. Aggravation. It rings a third time. Now, you’re angry. The mood is irretrievably shattered. The phone owner looks up at the class leader and shrugs her shoulders. Complaints flood the front desk. Fran Philip, owner of Menlo Pilates & Yoga studio in Menlo Park, California—the heart of Silicon Valley—shared this true incident. However, it’s all too common and could have happened at your facility.

Electronic gadgets are essential to most of our lives; however, if unmanaged, they can undermine our ability to pay attention to one task for more than a few minutes. The preceding example shows how technology’s constant presence can prevent simple, uninterrupted enjoyment of an activity. For fitness professionals, whose livelihoods depend on helping clients achieve results, this makes it more difficult to accomplish objectives. The task of motivating people is enhanced by biofeedback devices and programs but, on the other hand, complicated by the need to capture the attention of an increasingly fragmented and inattentive clientele.

Mobile technology brings unprecedented advantages, and yet excessive electronic stimulation produces negative consequences. Digital distraction can harm mental health and cause physical injury from accidents. Scientists range in opinion on the matter. Some think that constant media engagement is one of the most serious threats to humanity, and others argue that multitasking with devices may increase the brain’s processing speed and improve multitasking capacity (Carr 2011). While long-term consequences are still to be determined, research is shedding light on how the brain processes information and how technology and social media usage may be affecting people.

The Allure of the Alert: What Is Digital Distraction?

Distraction from electronic devices and media is real and increasing. Some call it digital distraction; others, an epidemic of distraction. It refers to the overload we experience when we consume too much media or use too many devices. What we’re really talking about is “task switching,” says Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

“Nobody truly ‘multitasks,’ except in rare situations. What we’re doing is ‘task switching,’ or telling our brains to focus on something different for a moment or longer, and then trying to go back to our original task. The problem is that digital technology is highly engaging and lures our attention away easily—and when we return, we need to reconstruct what we were doing and hopefully have enough time to complete the task.”

“An issue that arises is what we call ‘continuous partial attention,’ meaning that you never spend time analyzing some problem or issue in depth, but rather, spend a limited amount of time doing each task superficially,” Rosen continues. “This use of technology, particularly constant task switching, predicts symptoms of many psychological disorders.”

“Pure” multitasking occurs only under two conditions, according to Rosen. “The first is when both tasks are very simple. The second is when one task is automatic, such as in riding an exercise bicycle while listening to the news, and paying attention to both. Most of the neurological work of bike riding is done at lower-brain-stem levels, with minimum higher-order cognitive processing. If you’re new to an activity, however, until you reach a level of automaticity it takes more time and effort. Adding in another task will lead to more mistakes.”

Receiving digital messages is inherently stimulating, and responding to such stimuli borders on being irresistible. The allure of media task switching and participating in digital activities is so appealing that, for some, it leads to addiction. Research suggests that every time we receive any electronic notice, it alerts a primitive survival function of our brain to respond. Alerts trigger dopamine, a neurotransmitter (Richtel 2010a). A factor in people with addiction issues, dopamine signals that a “reward” is present. For some, playing video games, texting, checking Facebook and interacting via other social media can become addictive. Addiction to digital technology or online activities is similar to other impulse control disorders, explains Kimberly Young, PsyD, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, who has developed a diagnostic tool to identify people showing signs of Internet addiction. (For a detailed discussion of dopamine and food addiction, read “Food and Addiction: The Dopamine Made Me Do It,” by Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, in the October 2012 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.)

Regardless of consequences, the “device era” is here. As of December 2012, 87% of American adults had a cell phone and 45% had a smartphone (Smith 2013). As of January 2013, 26% of American adults owned an e-book reader and 31% owned a tablet computer (Smith 2013). Twenty-three percent of teens aged 12–17 own a smartphone and the median teen texter averages 60 texts per day. Americans aged 18–24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages per day (Smith 2011). A survey of all adults shows an average of 10 texts daily (Smith 2011) Accidents involving texting drivers and pedestrians preoccupied with personal devices are on the rise.

Impact of Technological Distractions

A growing body of research confirms that overuse of devices or electronic media increases stress and anxiety, impacts life balance and quality, overwhelms our ability to concentrate, reduces multitasking success and, in some cases, limits rather than boosts productivity. This is ironic when the ultimate purpose of these devices is to improve efficiency and enhance our lives.

The following preliminary issues are being identified:

There is more stress. Forty-nine percent of employees who use the Internet or email at work say that technologies such as the Internet, email, cell phones and instant messaging have increased job stress (Madden & Jones 2008). Early research on “technostress” showed that frequent introduction of new software, rapid changes in workplace technology and more time pressures from technology increased workplace stress (Arnetz 1997).

There is more anxiety. More individuals are suffering from “phantom vibration syndrome”—the perception that a cell phone is vibrating when it isn’t. This has been suggested as evidence of anxiety among those obsessed with mobile phones (Rosen et al. 2013). Some individuals suffer anxiety when they can’t check devices and/or social media frequently, but researchers have yet to determine whether this anxiety harms health (Durocher et al. 2011).

It’s difficult to disconnect from work. Among professionals and managers, increased technological connectivity leads to longer work hours and more challenges disconnecting during nonworking hours (Madden & Jones 2008). Those aged 30–49 have the most difficulty disconnecting fully from work, and this is impacting their life balance.

People find it hard to concentrate. Only 38% of employed adults who go online, use email or own a cell phone say technologies have made it harder for them to focus at work, while 50% of those who own a PDA or Blackberry note problems concentrating at work (Madden & Jones 2008). These statistics, however, predate the proliferation of iPhones and other smartphones. The typical U.S. worker is interrupted every 3 minutes (Silverman 2012).

Sleep is disrupted, and depression sets in. In a study of 4,100 young adults aged 20–24, conducted at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, heavy mobile-phone use was linked to an increase in sleeping difficulties among men and an increase in depression in both men and women. Heavy computer use was related to increased stress, sleeping problems and depression in women and to sleeping problems in men (Thomee 2012).

There’s an increase in distracted-driving and distracted-pedestrian accidents. Nearly 400,000 people are killed or injured each year in distracted-driving accidents in the United States. Distractions include anything that diverts manual, visual or cognitive attention from driving. Since texting includes all three, it is of particular concern (NHTSA 2013). Pedestrians who use mobile phones while walking also cross unsafely into oncoming traffic significantly more often than other pedestrians (Weksler & Weksler 2012).

The ability to learn is being undermined. Theories of how humans learn emphasize the importance of downtime, which allows the brain to process new information. Some experts are concerned that constant stimulation interferes with this learning process (Richtel 2010b). Students who accessed Facebook more frequently when studying had lower grade-point averages than those who avoided it (Rosen et al. 2013a).

Multitasking is a myth. In a lab-based study, heavy media multitaskers were worse at ignoring irrelevant but distracting information than light media multitaskers (Ophir, Nass & Wagner 2009). Heavy media multitaskers perceived themselves as being more effective than they actually were (Sanbonmatsu et al. 2013).

On the positive side, technology allows us to access information at any time, to connect easily with others, to collect and manage data and to work more flexibly. In fact, instant access offers many advantages. Emerging research is showing that portable devices and media can usefully convey health information, support the achievement of weight loss and other health objectives, and track biometric data such as weight, calories burned, nutrients consumed, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and more (Appel et al. 2011).

The Journal of Medical Internet Research is a leading health informatics journal that focuses on ehealth, including the use of social media, mobile apps and Internet resources for health. Many positive consequences may result from the informed application of technology. It has a lot of potential to help people improve their health and manage chronic conditions.

Given the potentially harmful consequences of technology overuse, however, a key to promoting digital well-being is to use media and devices with conscious awareness. In contexts where people put themselves and others at risk, such as when driving, public prevention policies are warranted.

How the Brain Processes Information and Forms Learned Memories

To understand how technologies that were originally created for entertainment, connectivity and productivity can produce negative consequences, it helps to learn some basic principles about how the brain processes information. Two important concepts include working memory and executive attention. An individual can process limited information in working memory at any given time. Every task has a cognitive cost. As we become more experienced in performing a particular activity, it requires less cognitive energy (Lee, Lin & Robertson 2011). For example, a new bicycle rider must concentrate fully to learn the skills involved. With practice, bicycling becomes more automated, but it always requires an intrinsic amount of attention.

When we task-shift or multitask, we increase demand on working memory. If you’re doing a simple task like treadmill walking and you’re used to it, listening to background music may enhance your experience. Your primary focus is still walking. If you add interactivity by talking on a phone, your attention shifts to the conversation, and less mental energy is allocated to your external environment and to walking. If you increase your cognitive load further by using your hands to send a text message while looking at your phone, you give even less attention to walking and other environmental cues. This overload exponentially increases the risk that you may trip and fall.

“When you’re trying to juggle multiple streams of information and multiple responses,” explains Rosen, “you’re going to feel overloaded. From a brain perspective, you’re constantly moving blood and oxygen from area to area so that neurotransmitters can be released and then moving to another area and back again. This is the epitome of cognitive overload.”

The concept of executive attention refers to our ability, within the context of working memory, to prioritize information and to focus on accomplishing a specific goal without distraction from irrelevant stimuli. Individuals with high levels of executive attention are typically more productive. In people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, executive attention is a challenge; they are unable to prevent their minds from wandering and are easily distracted.

Theories of memory and learning are based on the principle that downtime, or time when we are taking a break from activity, is when the brain actually processes information into a learned memory. Loren Frank, PhD, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, told Matt Richtel of The New York Times, “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories.” Frank believes that when the brain is constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process” (Richtel 2010b).

Growing evidence even supports the importance of sleep after learning, to promote long-term memory consolidation (Djonlagic et al. 2012). Susan Johanssen, ME, a mechanical engineer with Ariel Dynamics in Coto de Caza, California, tested emergency safety protocols for NASA astronauts. “Our research confirmed that good-quality sleep enhanced learning, because astronauts performed an emergency protocol better when sleep occurred after initial learning.” Researchers hypothesized that the brain was able to process information into a persistent memory after the downtime of sleep.

Such research about working memory, executive attention, learning and creation of persistent memories shows that continuous technological stimulation may create cognitive overload and conditions that undermine learning. Signs and symptoms of what Rosen calls iDisorder, or the negative relationship between technology use and mental well-being, include the following:

  • continually checking in with virtual worlds on the phone or computer
  • experiencing anxiety if not checking in >>
  • waking in the middle of the night with a flood of thoughts
  • feeling more stress or anxiety
  • making more mistakes or having accidents
Digital Distraction and the Fitness Business

As digital distraction impacts society at large, it also affects the fitness profession through its influence over clients and training professionals—and through the array of devices used to monitor, support and facilitate training. Leading facilities and studios are adopting formal policies on device use in order to promote safety and enforce etiquette. Claudia Micco, fitness coordinator at the Ritz-Carlton® Kapalua in Maui, Hawaii, has 27 years of experience. “Everyone brings the phone to sessions these days, because they believe they can’t live without it,” Micco says. “Generally, I’ve noticed that people over 55 are able to turn it off for the whole session. Under 37, I usually have to make deals with them. People between 37 and 55 can keep it on vibrate.” Micco has created a designated safe area where people can place devices during training.

Studio owners have implemented strategies to keep mobile devices out of the training room or to limit their use in this setting. “We installed foyer lockers, not cubbies,” Philip says. “Students can leave belongings [including their phones] in the lockers and take a key. Often I hear at least two phones ring in the lockers [during class]. Our policy is to encourage students to tell the teacher if they’re expecting an important call and to place that client close to the door. If the call/text arrives, the person can exit the room.”

“[For staff], studio policy is that no teacher is to have a device at hand. Once when an instructor did need to wait for a call, I volunteered to take it for her during class. With trainers, if they must take an important call, I ask them to inform clients and to keep the phone close by and face down. That way the buzzing [and flashing] does not affect lighting in the room.”

Ken Alan, lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, says, “Many clubs in the Los Angeles area no longer allow mobile phone conversations on the fitness floor because it’s either distracting to other members or disruptive of other people’s workouts. Sometimes a person gets so involved in conversation that he forgets to get off a piece of equipment while others are waiting.”

People still frequently text or read email while training, however. Fitness facility accidents related to device use include people falling off treadmills. Future policies may require members to expressly agree that they assume all responsibility for any risk of harm if they choose to use a personal electronic device while training on premises.

Since clients pay for services, it requires finesse to discourage device use. Experienced personal trainers point out the advantages of using training time to concentrate on the workout. “I want clients to take personal responsibility if they don’t see the results they expected or hoped for,” says Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, who lives in Paris. “I encourage a truly mindful presence of all five senses and concentration,” adds Lawrence Biscontini, MA, mindful movement specialist based in New York and Greece. “Having gum, headphones and a vibrating cell phone are examples of three things that I discourage.”

Studies show that students pay more attention and perform better in school if educators provide specific breaks to check mobile devices (Rosen et al. 2013a). Trainers and group instructors may use a similar strategy, reminding clients at the beginning of a session to check devices, respond if necessary and turn off alerts (sound and vibration). Class participants who need to leave early can be invited to do so before the final relaxation, and to leave props behind for the instructor to put away.

In addition to policies regarding device use during sessions, fitness pros need tools to capture fragmented attention. The warm-up is a time not only to prepare the body but also to prepare and focus a preoccupied mind. Mind-body techniques cultivate present-moment awareness. Effective methods include stimulating the senses and using breathing and balance exercises.

Mind as Master, Technology as Tool

Exercise is suggested as a leading countermeasure to too much media exposure. But as technology creeps into workouts, keeping exercise as a solution, rather than making it part of the problem, is a new challenge. To effectively promote health, it’s important to identify when cognitive overload is happening and when to use coping strategies to prevent harm. Fitness professionals can help by understanding this issue, setting policies that foster a safe and effective training environment and providing clients with informed advice.

With digital proliferation, we must remind ourselves that the mind is master and that technology is a tool. The cognitive cost of overload and the risk of harm highlight the imperative to manage device and media use mindfully and effectively. Technological advances create formerly inconceivable opportunities to promote health, see real-time training effects, offer immediate feedback and long-distance encouragement, and record data for analysis and program personalization. For inspiring individuals and transforming lives, however, our own wisdom and heartfelt personal touch are paramount.

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Shirley Archer, JD, MA

IDEA Author/Presenter
Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA’s mind-bo... more less
References and Further Reading
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Arnetz, B.B. 1997. Technologic stress: Psychophysiological aspects of working with modern information technology. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23 (Suppl. 3), 97-103.




Carr, N. 2011. The Shallows. New York: Norton.

Djonlagic, I., et al. 2012. Increased sleep fragmentation leads to impaired off-line consolidation of motor memories in humans. PLoS ONE, 7 (3), e34106.




Durocher, J.J., et al. 2011. Social technology restriction alters state-anxiety but not autonomic activity in humans. American Journal of Physiology, Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301 (6), R1773-78.




Kanai, R., et al. 2011. Distractibility in daily life is reflected in the structure and function of human parietal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (18), 6620-26.




Lee, J., Lin, L., & Robertson, T. 2011. The impact of media multitasking on learning. Learning, Media and Technology. doi: 10.1080/17439884.2010.537664.




Lenhart, A. 2010. Cell phones and American life. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Cell-Phones-and-American-Adults.aspx.




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Smith, A. 2013. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Trend data (adults). http://pewinternet.org/Static-Pages/Trend-Data-%28Adults%29/Device-Ownership.aspx.




Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D.M. 2011. Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333, 776-78.




Thomee, S. 2012. ICT use and mental health in young adults: Effects of computer and mobile phone use on stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression. Research paper released by the Institute of Medicine at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg.




Weksler, M.E., & Weksler, B.B. 2012. The epidemic of distraction. Gerontology. doi: 10.1159/000338331.
June 2013

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