Technology instigating communication breakdown

Poorer social skills, inability to daydream, anxiety disorder - Linda Yeung learns about the costs of overusing smart devices

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 11:47am

Before Larry Rosen calls his 22-year-old daughter, he lets her know in advance by sending a text message. Phones have become such a popular tool for messaging and social networking that fewer people are using them to make phone calls. Face-to-face communication is also fast becoming a victim of the smartphone revolution.

The American professor says that as soon as his daughter's phone rings or vibrates she immediately drops what she is doing to check it. It's a behavioural trait that's increasingly common among the younger generation and a subject Rosen, a former chairman of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has studied.

"We are having a problem separating ourselves from our technology," he says. "Research in the US shows that two-thirds of teenagers and young adults check their phone every 15 minutes."

Rosen will address the pertinent topic of "Technology and the Brain - What Parents and Children Need to Know" in a talk this month as part of the annual 21st Century Learning international conference organised by local educators.

With technology becoming more central to our lives, parents have good reason to be concerned about its potential impact on their children. Local youth workers have warned that youngsters' speech development could be adversely affected. "We have not come across any cases of small children experiencing delayed speech because of overindulgence in video games or computers, but their ability to communicate could be hampered by a lack of personal interaction," says Anna Liu Lai-ying, of the Federation of Youth Groups' Youth Assessment and Development Centre.

"Parents leaving their children alone playing video games or playing online for lengthy periods while they carry on with their own chores should be mindful."

Both Liu and Rosen stress the importance of face-to-face communication at all stages of life, not least during childhood.

"Kids now don't know social signs. We learn these signs when we are small. It's so important for teens and pre-teens to learn. They should learn to talk to adults face-to-face," says Rosen, an international expert on the psychology of technology, whose research interests include generational differences in technology use and multitasking.

Rosen acknowledges that the web, giving users access to a vast range of information and knowledge, has aided intellectual development, and that the brain is more active when a person is searching the internet than when reading a book. But playing video games can cause the brain to act as if in the grips of an addiction, he adds.

"It causes much the same patterns of brain chemistry as when you are addicted to drugs or gambling. The brain gives out a chemical called dopamine when you are addicted to something."

Another problem is that an over-reliance on the virtual world can lead to imbalanced personal development, he warns.

"Children and young people need free time to play, do things they might not do if they were online. They are overactive in the virtual realm, not in the real world. The next generation will be very different. We already see that they are not as good at communicating, at daydreaming," Rosen says. "A balance between intellectual and emotional development is needed."

Research shows that using technology helps to activate different areas of the brain, yet over time it becomes overexcited, leading eventually to a sense of anxiety in the absence of external stimuli, or - in the worst-case scenario - anxiety disorder. A desire to stave off anxiety gives rise to obsessive traits, as can be seen with children too regularly taking out their phones. In the United States, studies show that three-quarters of children leave their phones by their bed on vibrate mode and wake up in the night to check it. "That means they are getting less quality sleep, which is critical for the brain," Rosen warns.

"My advice for parents is they need to carefully monitor their teenage, even pre-teen, children who have smartphones, because you don't want them waking up in the middle of the night."

American researchers have termed the habit of checking their phones every 15 minutes "phantom pocket vibration", because of the tingling effect of the phone vibrating on their leg when an alert comes in. "They need to check in or they get highly anxious," Rosen says.

He was approached by American teachers seeking advice on how to deal with students' tendency to check their devices in class. He suggested they let the children check their phones for a minute then put them aside for more than 15 minutes. This would show them that there is no need for them to check so often.

Locally, mobile phones are banned in class. But students are quick to turn them on during breaks. Some peek at Facebook when the teacher is not looking, says Form Five student Betty Leung, adding: "When a group of my classmates sit at the same table for lunch, they don't talk. They text each other instead. That seems strange to me. They bring out their phones the moment they sit down."

Betty is in the minority, but says it is because she has only had her smartphone a few months and has not yet developed "the habit".

Rosen understands the dilemma parents are faced with when children ask for a smartphone. Another problem for parents can be having children who are more tech savvy than they are.

He advises setting clear guidelines on technology use. "You can buy them a smartphone, but you have to provide clear guidelines for its use. First of all, it does not stay next to the bed at night. An hour before kids go to sleep the phone is put in another room, where it is not touched until the morning.

"We are dealing with the pluses and minuses of a whole new world, and trying to keep everybody sane, safe and not anxious."

Rosen's talk will also touch on how to build a trusting relationship , the impact of multitasking on children and how to help them lead a healthy life. It is important for parents to cultivate a relationship in which their children are comfortable confiding in them about what makes them anxious, Rosen says. "A lot of parents have lost track of how to parent children [with smartphones] because they are pretty quiet when they are on their technology."

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Technology and the Brain - What Parents and Children Need to Know; Convention and Exhibition Centre, Jan 28, 7pm. HK$300 (HK$275 for age 16 and under). Ticket hotline: 3128 8288;