Thursday, 20 October 2011

Addicted to love... of Blackberrys, iPhones & other handheld devices!

Remember when someone called the Blackberry a Crackberry, apparently referencing its addictive properties? Emails, texts, Twitter & BBM are all great means of staying in touch - but do you ever feel that this virtual communication is dominating your life, getting in the way of what really matters - your real relationships with partners, family and friends?

Way back in 2005, a 19 year old from Paisley was treated for his addiction to electronic communication, which had cost him £4,500 in a year of sending around 100 texts a day, his job when he was sending up to 500 emails a day, and his relationship when his girlfriend could no longer cope with the barrage of messages.

And also in 2005, a study from Hewlett Packard expressed alarm that 62% of British adults appeared addicted to their email - even checking messages during meetings, after working hours and on holiday - behaviour we now mostly consider as normal!

Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield and co-author of Mind Hacks, identified what it is that makes this so addictive. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says. "This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, we reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward."

Now you understand the psychology and how you've been snookered into this addictive behaviour, it might make it easier to resist. Not least because if you are trying to get something done - a book read, a movie watched, an essay written, homework done - these constant interruptions seriously restrict your ability to concentrate and, in the long term, add to your personal stress.

I have worked with teenagers who tell me that they just can't turn off their phones, day or night, for fear of missing out. And when I see someone texting during a movie I just think - why can't you allow yourself some time out, some uninterrupted "me" time, for just 90 minutes? Or couples in restaurants not talking to each other but checking their messages or Twitter alerts, unable to drag themselves away from the demands of this insatiable device, and I wonder how it was that the idle thoughts of someone you don't actually know became more important than those of the person you're with?

In 2008 it was reported that Madonna and her then husband Guy Ritchie slept with their Blackberrys under their pillows. She apparently said, "It's not unromantic - it's practical." Six months later the marriage was over.

There's no doubt that it's brilliant to be able to have such immediate communication when we need it, but sometimes it's important to literally switch off from the virtual world and re-engage with the real world, before we lose sight of what really matters.

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