The internet, smartphones, and social media are three inventions that can easily distract you and keep you from doing the task at hand. It comes to a point where we find ourselves asking, “why do we deliberately become so engaged with using technologies?”. These technologies encourage multitasking as their model of usage, which would put an undeniable amount of pressure on our cognitive control abilities.
Humans as Information-Seeking Creatures
What sets us apart as a species from the rest of the known living organisms (long live Captain Spock), other than constantly trying to destroy the planet, is our drive for knowledge. This constant thirst for knowledge has even depicted itself in ancient texts, dating back to the bible, where Adam and Eve doomed us all by biting down that delicious fruit that belonged to the tree of knowledge and started multitasking.
Seeking information on its own is an inherent drive for us as human beings; however, we are often engaging in interference-inducing behaviors to satisfy this need. From an evolutionary perspective, many studies show that we are not behaving optimally, even from a completely information-foraging perspective. In animals’ behaviors regarding food, there is a cost-benefit relationship between remaining in a food field and moving to a new field. This explains why, how, and when animals take the time and energy to travel to a new field that has more food rather than gather dwindling food resources from the current field.
Interestingly, our extreme engagement with technology is not related to survival. So, why do we frequently choose to move rapidly from one high-tech media activity to another before we have completed our tasks in the previous one, even when we are aware that this wastes time? This occurs in the form of a “resumption lag,” which refers to the time it takes to return to the original task with full attention again. Two internal factors play a key role in this cost-benefit relationship. These internal factors are:
- Boredom, which is reflected physiologically as diminished arousal, and
- Anxiety, which is reflected physiologically as increased stress.
Our attention span has reduced to only 8 seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish, believe it or not (approximately 9 seconds! Go on. Google it.). It seems that in direct response to modern technology, we are getting bored with what we are doing and becoming anxious to move on to the next task more quickly than ever before, which results in more frequent media multitasking behavior. This distractive multitasking and task switching continue to take place even when the original topic still has new information to be discovered. So, boredom and anxiety as internal factors influence the perceived benefits of being in a current field. Clearly, the head-on collision between our main goals and our cognitive control limitations will deteriorate by an increased rate of accumulation of anxiety and boredom and increased accessibility of information.
Other than being a kingdom for all the distracted board members, boredom is described as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Yeykelis and his colleagues measure some students’ anxiety, stress, and also excitement levels via GSR, which is a special wrist sensor that can measure psychological arousal levels continuously. They discovered that the arousal level started rising twelve seconds prior to a task switch, but, more importantly, early arousal was most prominent when switching from “work-related” screens such as Internet information searches to “entertainment-related” screens like watching a video, gaming, etc.
In fact, arousal level was quite low when looking at work-related screens, which explains why kids love to do schoolwork all the time. Subconsciously, we are frequently driven to find a more entertaining thing to do. It is shown that using smartphone apps and boredom go together like a horse and carriage. This is because you have free time to kill (well not literally) but are not stimulated enough so you leave the door open to distractions.
In fact, we prefer to use our devices to seem like we have a life than just sit and think about all the things we did wrong (which can be quite entertaining). The concept of “intermittent reinforcement” shows that when someone is only stimulated sometimes, and with an unpredictable pattern at that, the behavior itself becomes engaging. Also, the impact of boredom doesn’t just make you switch tasks; it would also lessen your ability to simply do nothing and stay bored (which is apparently a good thing… no, really).
It is rather surprising that during the past thirty years, anxiety disorders have increased twentyfold. Well, surprising to some. One in five people suffers from an anxiety disorder that can be attributed to using different types of technology; others seem to enjoy anxiety. We get anxious because we dread being the last one to get informed of a precious piece of information that is referred to as “FOMO,” fear of missing out, and also known as the “Schrödinger’s cat was too curious so it got killed” phenomenon.
Surprise, surprise, you can also get clinical symptoms of OCD—obsessive-compulsive disorder— as one of the psychiatric disorders that are related to anxiety. This time your OCD would be about checking your phone like you’re Steve Jobs. Surprisingly, the hypothesis that taking away someone’s phone will make him or her highly anxious and that it’d be more than having a phone nearby (albeit turned off) is entirely wrong. In fact, anxiety will increase after around an hour for both groups.
You’d have a heightened level of anxiety, increased heart rate, and blood pressure because of the stress you’d have about the missed call you’d get regardless of whether the phone is silent, nearby, taken away, or even if you have no one to call you. So, it is not just about your access to information, but rather your access to a particular type of information: communication and staying on top of events, but no one can really juggle so much with only two hands and one head. However, if you truly care about your mental health and cognitive capabilities, you have to get rid of distractions or at least stop multitasking.