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What’s the Impact of Digital Distraction?

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. For wellness 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.

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.

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