Are our smartphones making us psychotic?

Let’s talk about adult ADD. I think I have it. You may think you have it. But is it real? And is instant info osmosis really good for us?

During Midan Marketing’s Breaking the Pattern trends webinar in March of this year, I talked about instant info osmosis as one of seven big consumer trends to watch this year. The whole premise of this trend is that in today’s fast-paced, easy-access world, we are able to find anything we want, anytime, anywhere. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for us anymore. We all seem to have tech-induced attention deficit disorder (ADD) that has left us impatient and unwilling to give our full, undivided attention to anything for very long. We not only want information instantly, but we want to be able to understand what we are looking at in a matter of seconds.

Recent media proves that this trend is mainstreaming and will be a big concern for years to come. The cover of Newsweek’s July 16th issue featured an article entitled “iCrazy” which discussed in full detail our obsession with technology and how it hasn’t just caused us to have ADD, but how it is in fact physically altering our brains.

Peer reviewed research is surfacing that says that “the current incarnation of the internet – portable, social, accelerated, all-pervasive – may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive compulsive and attention deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.” [1] Psychotic!!!! It’s true. Our digitized minds show up in scans similar to those of drug addicts.

Smartphones have trained us to be little Pavlovian dogs that jump at every ping. And why wouldn’t we when every ping offers a reward of some sort. According to MIT media scholar Judith Donath, “these rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table.”[2]

While it’s not new that the internet can be addictive, what is new is that we now have access to it everywhere as more and more cities are offering free Wi-Fi access. This has caused a major blurring between the virtual and real world. The internet was originally developed as another medium for information beyond TV, radio, print, etc. But today, it is a world of its own. According to ComScore, as of early 2012, 47 percent of mobile phone users have smartphones. [3]  This percentage is expected to grow, exponentially, making the internet available to consumers anywhere and everywhere, 24 hours a day.

You may think – so what?! We are all becoming addicts….big deal. Aren’t we all addicted to Starbucks® coffee anyway? Addiction is one thing, but changing our brains is something more significant. Two recent Chinese studies link internet addiction to “structural abnormalities in gray matter,” which means a 10-20 percent shrinkage to the areas of our brain responsible for processing speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information. And the more time you spend online, the more the brain shows signs of atrophy.[4]

As with most trends, we also see a counter trend happening where many consumers are switching to basic phones without the frills or taking digital detox vacations. The Quincy Hotel in Washington, D.C. offers the “Be Unplugged” package which encourages guests to go old school—giving up their Kindle and other gadgets in exchange for a $25 Barnes & Noble gift certificate and journal to capture deep thoughts that may emerge.

So what can we do about our tech-induced ADD? Well a few things come to mind.

  1. Promote no phone zones. This means banning your beloved phone from meetings at work to dinners at home. Without the phone as a constant distraction, everyone will be able to be in the moment, remain focused, and be more efficient.
  2. Focus on focusing. If you feel ADD creeping in, try out some focus exercises. If it’s getting really bad, spend 10 minutes a week on the following focus techniques:
    • Count backwards from 100 in your mind
    • Look at a paragraph in a book and count the number of words – not just once but twice
    • Try to close your eyes and think of nothing for five minutes
  3. Take at least two major tech breaks a year. Go without technology for a number of days or go on vacation without technology.
  4. Be retro and try doing something the old-fashioned way. Remember when you had to use a map, physically open a book or even workout without music? Give it a try. Think of something you do often with your phone, and try doing it without your phone.
  5. Go ping free. Turn off your phone’s ring, text and email settings so that it isn’t constantly notifying you. And if you are at work, try turning off your email for an hour to help you concentrate.

And finally, I’d like to leave you with an interesting quote from “iCrazy’s” author Tony Dokoupil, “The internet is now ours to shape. Our minds are in the balance.”

[1] “Is the onslaught making us crazy?” Newsweek, 16 July 2012

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ingrid Lunden, US Smartphone Penetration 47% In Q2; Android Remains Most Popular, But Apple’s Growing Faster (August 2012)

[4] “Is the onslaught making us crazy?” Newsweek, 16 July 2012

Market Research  Public Relations


  1. …so…. Would you like your phone to quit working for the day?

    Good article, BTW. Enjoyed reading it during one of my psychotic ADD tangents during which I was trying to find your address… and ended up reading a blog post instead…

    hmm… Off to count words in a book.

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