You know concerns about internet addiction are real when the people whose job is to get us addicted to the internet are worried. No one less than Stuart Crabb, a director in Facebook’s executive offices who oversees learning and development, is urging users to do the unthinkable: Log off, shut down the machine (or at least put it on sleep) and go do something involving the real world and real people.
Others in the tech community with similar views are Soren Gordhamer, founder of Wisdom 2.0 which holds an annual conference about finding balance in the digital age, and Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer and former head of engineering at Cisco. Gordhamer speaks of us being “done with this honeymoon age” of untrammeled tech-love. Warrior says that she meditates every night and spends her Saturday painting and writing poetry while “turning off her phone or leaving it in the other room”; it is “almost like a reboot for your brain and your soul,” she says.
Indeed, at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in February, amid sessions on yoga and mindfulness, leaders and executives from all the big tech companies (Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga, PayPal, Google, Microsoft and Cisco) “debated whether technology firms had a responsibility to consider their collective power to lure consumers to games or activities that waste time or distract them.”
I’m not sure if tech leaders see it this way, but it seems they are presenting themselves with an ethical conundrum that, rationalize as they will, they may not be able to extricate themselves from any more readily than tobacco companies can disassociate themselves from cigarette addiction (which internet addiction has been compared to). Eric Schiermeyer, a co-founder of onling game company Zynga, makes the case that Silicon Valley is “no more responsible for creating irresistible technologies than, say, fast-food restaurants were responsible for making food with such wide appeal.” It’s a similar argument heard from, for instance, fast-food companies or soft drink makers about bans on their products: They’re just making what they make; if consumers want to consume things they know aren’t good for them, they are free to do so and to suffer the consequences.
Other members of the tech community — aware of reports about how people now spend 28 percent of their office time on email — urge people to be, indeed, mindful about the “addictive properties” of gadgets.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative reference book for psychiatric disorders, is planning to include “Internet use disorder” in the appendix of its next edition, a sign that the American Psychiatric Association thinks that such a condition may exist and merits further study. Even if “internet addition” does not become a full-fledged psychiatric disorder, the side effects of engrossment in the internet, computers and gadgets including poor nutrition, “cyber shakes,” headaches and other symptoms are more and more noted.
Small wonder that a school that does not at all embrace technology is populated with the children of Silicon Valley workers. Mindful of the dangers of electronic devices, we can, perhaps, teach future generations about their limits as much as about their powers and make sure children are deeply aware of the marvels of the good old-fashioned real world.
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