Smartphones are distracting us to death—but we can fight back

A photo from Eric Pickersgill’s “Removed” series.


‘We’re not communicating anymore—just connecting’

As the World Wide Web has become a staple of modern life over the last 25 years, we’ve used it in ways that have forever changed our relationships with people and information. That’s come with a big drawback, one expert says: We appear to be living less in the present moment, and communicating less with each other.

Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, studies the impact of technology on our lives. In his new book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” written with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, he examines how communications technology might be making us miserable—and more prone to distraction.

Real human interaction, Rosen says, is more than just exchanging words or images on a screen. It involves body language, tone of voice, interpretation of moods, consequences, and the intimacy that comes with dealing with another person face-to-face.

“We’re not communicating anymore,” Rosen told MarketWatch in a recent interview. “Just connecting.”

That eerie sentiment is captured in a recent series by photographer Eric Pickersgill, where he photographed everyday individuals using their devices but removed their devices just before he took the photograph.

Taking distraction to the next level

Rosen is an admitted “geek” who says his love affair with technology started when his parents took him to a UCLA computer lab and they printed out a picture of Mickey Mouse on a dot-matrix printer. He now has a home filled with connected devices that can demand his attention at every waking—and sleeping—hour.

“We’ve always had this propensity to be distracted,” he told MarketWatch. “That’s sort of human nature. It’s adaptive, too: I mean, as a cave man, if you were easily distracted, you would die. The problem is that the technology world changed everything, because now you have so many more ways of being distracted and you carry a distracting device in your pocket.

“We have sort of become willing to be distracted, but we are not willing to modify our behavior,” he said. “I often describe it tongue-in-cheek as being like Pavlov’s dogs—we respond viscerally. We even see in the research that [when] your phone beeps, your heart rate goes up, your galvanic skin response goes up, you have this visceral reaction that, unless you have the wherewithal to say ‘Oh, I think I’ll leave that for later,’ is going to grab you immediately.

“Quite honestly, it started with AOL: ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ I mean, that was the whole idea—to distract you from whatever you were doing [by] telling you something really important was there for you.”

Now, Rosen says, what was a perhaps-irritating novelty has become ubiquitous as the concept of being distracted by our devices has become widely accepted.

When devices cut into our sleep, they cut into our ability to remember.

Texting and driving even kills excellent drivers

Self-accepted distraction has real-world consequences. Distracted driving, for example, was recently shown to be behind a jump in traffic fatalities.

“Distracted driving is killing people,” Rosen said. Until even more lives are lost through distracted driving—or some spectacular event occurs, like a celebrity dying—he fears that people will still think it’s OK to sneak a quick peek or text on their phone while they are driving.

“It’s going to be hard to wean people off of that,” he said.

Distraction rules the S&P 500

Meanwhile, corporations have found it profitable to sell distractions. Companies that profit from keeping us glued to the internet and connected devices have seen their market values skyrocket since 1990, when the world was introduced to the World Wide Web, and 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone.

in mid-September, Apple Inc. AAPL, +0.78% Alphabet Inc. GOOG, +0.29% GOOGL, +0.18%  Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +0.35% Facebook Inc. FB, +0.14% Inc. AMZN, +1.00% Berkshire Hathaway Inc. BRK.A, +0.43% BRK.B, +0.61% Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM, +0.95% Johnson & Johnson Inc.JNJ, +0.73% General Electric Co. GE, +0.30% and AT&T Inc. T, -0.29% had the 10 largest market capitalizations on the S&P 500—meaning 6 of 10 had a direct stake in consumer technology…





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