A Q&A on the dangers of smart phone/social media use with Dr. Ofir Turel

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

This interview was part of our cover story, “Put down that cell phone!”

Below is my longer interview with Dr. Ofir Turel, professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton. The scholar has conducted extensive research into social media addiction, including cell phone use, and its effect on social function and academic performance as well as health.

DJ: One thing I’ve noticed on campuses is that more students are just looking down at devices when I see them in the halls. This is a marked difference than just a few years ago. What is going on? Is this a dangerous trend?

OT: Younger users (and some older ones) have markedly shifted their life to online environments. If in the past the vast majority (say 90%) of interactions were face-to-face and few (say 10%) over one-to-one electronic media (phone in the 70s-80s, and later email and maybe text messaging in the 90s), this situation seems to have flipped. The majority of interactions for some individuals, and especially young-adults, is now done via electronic media, which allows one-too-many communications. … The choice of online interactions over face-to-face ones is possibly more rewarding for some users – they seem to have better control over their circle of friends this way and can present themselves in a very selective and positive way (for example, by posting only happy and exciting pictures). These tasks are also time-demanding.

DJ: I’ve heard reports that some professors are distracted by distracted students, who get antsy if they haven’t looked at their devices in several minutes. These professors even schedule breaks so that students can check their devices – this seems to be the equivalent of a “cigarette break” circa 1970.

OT: I am not surprised by such reports. There are many neural and behavioral similarities between using substances (including cigarettes) use and social media use (and more broadly the use of cell phone applications for hedonic and social purposes). All of these behaviors are psychologically rewarding, and our brains learn to expect and even in some cases strongly “want” these rewards. All of these release neurotransmitters in our brains that make us happy. When the brain does not get these rewards people become antsy (akin to withdrawal symptoms in the cases of substance addiction, though in most cases these withdrawal symptoms are very mild). In contrast to the group you described, many professors let their students use cell phones for surfing in class. First, it is difficult to block the use of such technologies. Second, taking mental breaks can help students “re-charge” and grasp more complicated materials. While no one can justify that checking what a 5th-degree-friend-of-a-friend has done today is more important than the class content, it seems unrealistic to expect students to delay their desire to do so, especially since they do not know what they may find on their social media (there is a big element of “surprise” every time they check it).

DJ: Is intense cell phone use affecting quality of life – in this case, “the college experience?”

OT: There are some arguments that at lower levels, cell phone use has positive effects; for example, by allowing better connectivity with classmates, instructors or even strangers who can help with assignments, allowing watching instructional videos from anywhere, taking pictures of the whiteboard, copying assignments, sharing information and consulting with colleagues. At the same, though, at higher levels of use, it obviously can have negative impacts on various aspects of quality of life. Too much information (information overload) is bad; people can become stressed when they do not have access to their phone (for example, FOMO, or “fear of missing out”). They can also easily develop jealousy with their friends who portray rosy pictures of their lives. Not to mention possible adverse influences on sleep quality (checking cell phones before going to bed suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that signals to the brain that it should go to sleep mode), which indirectly can deteriorate one’s mental and physical health.

DJ: Have your studies focused on college-age adults as a subset? Any unique findings vs. older adults?

Dr. Turel
Dr. Turel

OT: I have mostly studied college-age adults. This group seems to differ from older adults in at least three aspects. First, their social needs are different; they still need to develop their identities, confidence, social circles, professional aspirations, etc. Older adults have similar needs, but to a lesser extent. Students are often in a unique situation; they leave their homes for the first time (most of them), and for a change, no one is there to supervise them and they may feel lonely. This makes it easier for them to get carried away with rewarding behaviors (for example, playing video games in the dorms), which may be harming and addictive. Older adults are often not in this situation. Second, younger adults tend to be (not always, though) more technologically savvy. … This, obviously makes it much easier, natural, and more incentivizing for younger adults to connect via technology. Third, from a brain science standpoint, the brains (at least some regions) of younger adults still develop until the age of 25, whereas the brains of healthy older adults are more stable. This can create differences in their decision-making abilities, and younger adults are consequently more prone for risky behaviors.

DJ: One of your studies had to do with social media and authenticity, and how some people falsely present themselves online; this ends up also being tied to self-esteem, you also state. Do you find that the use of social media while at college may be a way for a person put up walls, and not let people see their authentic selves?

OT: Yes. Social media is a great tool for hiding one’s fragile true identity and presenting oneself in a much more positive light. All people try to manage their identities, and this is natural and reasonable. Humans have done it for centuries. However, social media tools give them the opportunity to strategically do so in a very efficient way. It is very easy to strategically self-select what to post and what not. For instance, in a recent report it was found out that women who recently gave birth present a very rosy picture of life (only smiling, happiness) where in fact many of them do not always feel this way. … In some extreme cases (7.5% in our study) the difference between the way people truly are and the way they present themselves on Facebook is huge. This gap can, in the long-term, harm the psychological wellbeing of users.

DJ: How common is social media addiction in younger adults?

OT: This is a charged question. The definition of what this addiction is is not yet agreed upon, and the question whether it really exists is not yet settled. What is clear is that some people who use Facebook present symptoms that are similar to those presented in cases of substance addiction: withdrawal, relapse and reinstatement, hiding the activity and lying about it, the constant need to increase the activity, irrationally giving preference for using Facebook over other important tasks. … Such individuals also seem to have similar underlying brain activation and structural changes that we have observed in the cases of substance and gambling addictions … different studies point to anything between less than 1% to over 10%. Nevertheless, be careful about the interpretation of such results, because this addiction is not formally defined and, consequently, its measurement is still elusive.