Multitasking and constant connectivity: technology and its effects on our cognitive processes, interpersonal relationships and society.

 From the very beginning, life has always been a flow of thoughts, distractions and connections. However, they used to be controlled and located at a distance requiring at least a walk or a phone call rather than a simple click on a smartphone, website or hyperlink. A growing amount of research proves that technology and our increasing dependence on it is fundamentally changing how we think, process information and relate to one another.

Researchers, journalists and professors across the globe are heatedly debating and undergoing research to measure and determine what effects from the Internet are harming or improving our human qualities. There is no denying that each technological advance in communications of the past 200 years has been met with concerns about its potentially damaging effects on everything ranging from community ties, human relationships and cognitive abilities. [1]Although disagreement about the likely effects prevails, everyone seemingly agrees on the Internet’s accountability for the complete transformation of society. Economist writer, David Manasian (2003), predicted a decade ago that the Internet would “change almost every aspect of our lives; private, social, cultural, economic and political…because [they] deal with the very essence of human society: communication between people. Earlier technologies, from printing to the telegraph…have wrought big changes over time. But the social changes over the coming decades are likely to be much more extensive, and to happen much faster, than any in the past because the technologies driving them are continuing to develop at a breakneck pace. More importantly, they look as if together they will be as pervasive and ubiquitous as electricity.”[2] (Manasian 2003, p. 4)

Postman- “Technology changes everything”

Neil Postman wrote the book “Technopoly: Our surrender of culture to technology” in 1992, only a year before the Internet became openly available to the general public. Postman cautiously warned that new technologies change the way we think and the arena in which our thoughts develop. He wrote that technology becomes a state of culture and a state of mind and that it “consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology” (Postman p. 71). Postman described what kind of society he predicted that we may be entering, one in which we would not control our machines but rather would let them take control over us. Although his predictions were evident long before the Internet transformed society as we know it, he reasoned that our understanding of the world fundamentally changes by our use and adaption of new technologies and that the new inventions/media compete with older technologies for our view of reality (Postman p. 16).  [3]

"A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything." (Postman p.18).


Nicholas Carr- Artificial intelligence


Nearly twenty years following Postman’s cautious warnings, journalist and author Nicholas Carr raised related concerns. As a result of becoming increasingly agonized by his tendency to fall prey to the Internet’s tempting and pervasive distractions, he published an article in The Atlantic in which he argued “we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet (...) As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” [4] Three years later Carr published “The Shallows”, a book in which he examined extensive amounts of research to prove his conviction that our digitally fast paced ecosystem, infinite information access, multitasking and the demand to be constantly connected is changing not only how we think, but how we process and retain information.[5] Carr suggests that as a result of leaving our old skills of accumulating and processing information behind, the synapses within our brains rewire themselves to adapt to the “new normal” of information overload, multitasking and hyperlinks. Can a deep examination of words, thoughts, reality and virtue flourish in learning characterized by enduring partial attention and multitasking?

Carr’s assessment is conclusive: due to the Internet we are less prone to undergo in-depth thinking and our overall performance on various cognitive and social arenas is in decline. Carr writes that the greatest sacrifice we make when devoting ourselves to the Web is the loss of connection networks in our own minds. The web itself is a network, but the hyperlinks cannot compare to the organic richness or sensitivity of synapses in our brain. Carr sees the Internet as an extensive medium as opposed to an intensive one in which he subscribes to reading. He recognizes that the invention of the printing press raised related concerns by diminishing the ancient oral traditions of remembering knowledge and storytelling, and that this invention was thought to get rid of intensive cognitive processes and memory at the time and replaced it with extensive thought processes that were associated with extensive reading.

Acquisition of knowledge decreases as the sources of knowledge increase

Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior explains that using the Internet may exercise the brain the same way solving a crossword puzzle does but that when this kind of intensive exercise becomes our primary mode of thought it can inhibit deep learning and thinking. He compares the intellectual environment of the Internet to solving a crossword puzzle while simultaneously reading a book. (Carr p. 126) Carr emphasizes the paradox that even though the Internet seizes our full attention, it only captures it for a few moments before it scatters it out and as a result our memory acquisition evolves from active to passive. Studies by researcher Erping Zhu conclude that the constant decision making, through evaluating and choosing which hyperlinks to click on, ultimately diminishes our ability to focus on a task and retain the information we are exposed to. “The reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge and synthesizing main ideas.” (Carr p.125), the paradox being that although the information, resources and facts are seemingly infinite, our actual acquisition of knowledge decreases as the sources of knowledge increase. When the decision making process is active in our minds, other parts of our brain are disabled and the process produces cognitive overload making our brains less adapt to retain the information in long term memory.

Maryanne Wolf- “We are not only what we read. We are how we read”

Developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf argues in her book “Proust and the Squid” that the style of “efficiency” and “immediacy” reading promoted by the Internet is weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when earlier technology, such as the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. She argues that our inability to interpret text and form the mental connections that occur when reading deeply and uninterrupted remain largely disengaged, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read” (23). She shares Socrates concerns, and asks whether our society has become Socrates worst nightmare, one in which we are “mere decoders of information” and that our false sense of knowing is distracting us to think beneath or beyond our Googled universes. (226) Wolf reflects whether the digital natives of the current generation will become so accustomed to immediate access to online information that they “will fail to investigate beyond the information given to the deeper layers of insight, imagination and knowledge that have led us to this stage of human thought.” [6]


 Wolf argues that at a time when over a billion people have access to the most extensive expansion of information ever compiled, it is important to use our analytical skills to question society’s responsibility for the transmission of knowledge. She asks whether the split second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes and of our own consciousness. Wolf asks the relevant question, what would be lost to us if we replaced the skills honed by the reading brain with those now being formed in our new generation of “digital natives” who sit and read transfixed before a screen? (221)[7]

These studies give reason to believe that the analytic skills of researchers in the past, people whom were required to reflect and carefully select which library books to read next, as opposed to today´s researchers who can largely outsource that ability to the computer, will eventually dissolve. Luckily, as history has proven there is reason to believe that because of the development and demands of information technologies to multitask, integrate and prioritize amongst infinite amounts of information people will adapt and develop new, valuable skill sets in the future. Enough research proves that our ability to execute these modern skills are on the rise and although paying the price by losing other abilities, it may also increase human intellectual capacity, life quality and finally the collective wisdom.

Steven Johnson - Creative intelligence

Carr also recognizes this. However, he primarily worries that we are losing more than we are gaining and that when we outsource our memory to a machine we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity. (190) [8]

William James, concluded a lecture in 1892 on memory with; “the connection is the thinking. The connection is the self.” Carr reasons that the moment we start letting our minds outsource our memories to email and Google it will be the moment when we begin to forget ourselves and our sense of orientation in the world. If multimedia is limiting rather than enhancing our acquisition of information, turning us into mindless consumers of big data, what will remain as drivers to retain knowledge and develop critical thinking skills? Creativity seldom blossoms from the efficiency loss researchers are cautious of, but relies on new and different ways of interpretation and also this kind of creative thinking constitutes intelligence. Through the development of the open web, ideas have flourished at an increasingly rapid rate and inspired the aspect of “new” and “different” thinking on a new level. Steven Johnson of The New York Times raises critique towards the condemnation of the increased reliability on the Internet. He argues the case that “the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude” and that even though “we are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected” this is a sacrifice we gladly should make.  Johnson refers to the array of technological innovations and great scientific studies that have taken place in distracting urban centers. He emphasizes how the printed page has allowed ideas to be stored and circulated more efficiently and that the Enlightenment itself was more a result of the exchange of ideas than of solitary, deep-focus reading.[9]

Unlike the memory chip of a computer, the brain is never full. We acquire long-term memory by consolidating and remember very little from our short-term memory in the long run. This functions completely opposite of the connections within a computer, which saves memories but can’t apply them to organic working memory. Carr’s assessment is that the Internet was not invented to optimize learning but presents information as a “concentrated fragmented mishmash”.

Gloria Mark – constant interruptions equals faster work?

Studies of office workers reveal that they constantly stop what they are doing to check their email, often more than thirty or forty times an hour, although reporting it to be a number significantly lower. For each glance, a small deployment of thought occurs, and the momentary redeployment of mental resources eventually equals an accumulated high cognitive cost. (p. 132 The Shallows) [10] Some research studies show that we are able to complete tasks in less time and of equal quality while being frequently interrupted.  Gloria Mark, professor at the Department of Informatics at University of California, performed an empirical study (2008) to investigate whether the context of interruptions account for differences in work quality and whether individual distinctions matter. Various empirical studies have focused on identifying the extent of interruptions and how they affect tasks, recovery time and timing of interruption. One study (2005) proved that the effects of interruptions during work may be nuanced and found that interruptions of the same context as the current tasks could be beneficial whereas interruptions of an unrelated task were disruptive. [11] Following up on this study Gloria Mark found that interruptions that share a context with the main task might be perceived as being beneficial but that the actual disruption costs were the same as with an unrelated task. Mark’s study found that participants completed interrupted tasks in less time with no difference in quality, and that they compensated for frequent interruptions by working faster instead. However, they found that this behavior caused them to experience more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort. Mark interpreted the results by suggesting that, “When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.” They reasoned that the interruptions lead people to change not only work rhythms but also strategies and mental states. The study also found that individual differences exist in the management of interruptions. They examined to what extent the measures of openness to experience and need for personal structure are predictive of the amount of time one needs to complete a task that is constantly interrupted. They found an inverse relationship: the higher the participants scored on ‘openness to experience’ and ‘need for personal structure’, the quicker it took for them to complete an interrupted task[12].

Considering that these results only confirmed the anecdotal reports[13] of informants in field studies who describe high stress levels when interrupted, it is hard to predict whether participants reporting significantly higher levels of stress, frustration and pressure after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance will eventually adapt and cope over time, or whether these measures are likely to increase.


Clifford Nash- “suckers for irrelevancy”


Stanford University professor Clifford Nash, a pioneer within research on multitasking, conducted a study that found that people who multitask most often are less able to focus on what’s important than those who multitask rarely. [14] Nash also refers to earlier psychology research that has proven frequent interruptions to scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious, and that the more complex the train of thought we are involved in, the greater the impairments the distractions cause. Nash claims that people who can’t resist the urge to multitask are “suckers for irrelevancy” because the frequent switching makes them unable to distinguish important information from irrelevant information. His studies have concluded that although heavy multitaskers blindly believe they are brilliant at completing unrelated tasks simultaneously, the truth is that they are actually performing significantly worse.

So if we know that the online multitasking Internet environment is impairing our ability to learn, why do we continue to ask it to interrupt us?


In the PBS documentary “Digital Nation” Nash admits that even though his studies find that multitaskers perform worse on cognitive tasks than people who unitask, multitasking may in fact be an inherent part of human nature. However, he argues that since, “we're in a world where multitasking is being pushed on more and more people, we could be essentially undermining the thinking ability of our society.”

As constant connectivity and information streams like Twitter and Newsfeeds continue to scatter more of our own minds and the minds behind the media’s headlines, Nash is worried that this trend will ultimately dumb down the world.

In addition to the “task switching cost”, meaning the time and energy lost from switching between tasks, Nash’s preliminary worry is if multitasking is affecting the ability to remember long term, handle analytic reasoning and switch properly between tasks. He wonders if the inborn inclination to handle several tasks at once will cost us the great ideas, because this behavior is causing us to perform significantly worse and in more time. [15]

Technology expert Edward Tenner cleverly questioned, “Will our new information technology threaten the very intellect that created it?”[16]

According to a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study, nearly two-thirds of 8-18 year olds that used computers for completing homework were simultaneously engaged in another activity. The study revealed that 81 percent of young people reported “media multitasking” several times during a typical week. Psychologist David E. Meyer at the University of Michigan says that even though young people tend to believe that they are competent at completing homework and text their friends simultaneously, this is not the case. Like Carr’s research suggested, Mayer found that multitaskers perform worse on both tasks in addition to accumulating high switching task costs through the time lost by continuously having to mentally warm up the brain to resume the suspended task. The amount of time lost increased significantly as the tasks became more complex or unfamiliar, and as a result; the efficiency of completing the task was much less than if the participants concentrated on only one task from start to finish.


Culture of ADD

Research has also shown that multitasking may threaten young people’s ability to learn as their divided attention impairs the ability to deeply integrate new information and be able to apply it later. In a study from 2006, neuroscience professor at UCLA Russell A. Poldrak and his colleagues asked participants to learn by trial and error by sorting cards into different categories. Sometimes they were allowed to devote themselves exclusively to this task, while other times they had to listen to high and low pitched beeping sounds and keep a mental tally of the high-pitched ones while completing the card sorting. The study found that although the participants were able to learn the sorting task while multitasking, they didn’t learn it the same way because they where using a different kind of learning memory while multitasking. The participants were relying on procedural memory rather than the more flexible declarative memory, and as a result could not answer questions asking them to apply what they had learned while multitasking. Their behavioral findings were later confirmed by conducting an fMRI study. They found that while participants focused on the task, they relied more on the hippocampus- the center of the declarative memory system. Conversely, when the participants multitasked they relied on the basal ganglia, one of the systems that builds less flexible memories. Poldrak concluded that students whom divide their attention between a cell phone and a teacher during class is more likely to learn rote answers than developing a true understanding of the subject. [17] Poldrak assesses that the quest for new information made possible by digital devices may be addictive. “The entire culture is starting to look like what you see in attention deficit disorder, where there’s a difficulty in focusing and distractibility”.

Reason for optimism

All though most research shows that if you do two things at once both will suffer, a recent research study conducted by The New York Times through Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Lab gives reason for optimism. The university conducted a study where they measured the brainpower when someone is interrupted. The study divided 136 participants into three different groups to complete a standard cognitive skill test. One of the groups were given the test with no interruptions, while the two others were told that they “might be contacted for further instructions” at any moment via instant message. During the initial test both the second and third groups were interrupted twice, but during the second test only the second group was interrupted while the third group awaited an interruption that never came. Consistent with Nash’s research, the results of the first test were grim, and especially among those whom regarded themselves as competent multitaskers; both interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than the uninterrupted group. This proved that the distraction of an interruption combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption essentially made the subjects 20 percent dumber. However, in the second test, when the second group was interrupted again, their test scores improved. Even though this group still underperformed compared to the uninterrupted group, the amount of wrong answers decreased to only fourteen percent less correct answers than the uninterrupted group. This suggests that people, who experience an interruption, and then expect another, can learn to improve how to deal with it. However, the results of the third group that were told they were going to be interrupted but never were, improved by a remarkable 43 percent, outperforming even the uninterrupted group. The researcher’s acknowledged that these findings require further research, but concluded that participants learned from their experience, and that their brains adapted. These findings give reason to believe that it is possible to train yourself for distractions, even when you don’t know when they will occur. [18]



Interpersonal relationships and behavior

There is no doubt that the Internet will continue to have and has proved to have significant impact on society, however the nature and value of the impact still remains largely unclear. Several studies show that Internet communication is an impoverished and sterile form of social exchange compared to the old fashioned face-to-face interactions and that its increasing use as a communication form causes negative outcomes through loneliness and depression, as well as weakening neighborhood and community ties. Conversely, there is also significant research proving the various benefits of these new social interactions enabling the development of groups and relationships to form that otherwise would unlikely occur, and as a result increases and enhances social connectivity. [19]

When communicating online, one has the option to remain anonymous. It is widely believed that communicating through the Internet has a deindividuating effect on the individuals involved, producing a behavior that is more self-centered and less socially regulated than usual. It is assumed that in the absence of social cues such as facial expressions, gesticulations and tone of voice it has negative effects on social interaction, or at least weaker and impoverished compared to face-to-face interactions. Pioneering research on computer-mediated communication in 1984 found that it had an deindividuating effect and proved an increase in aggressive and hostile exchanges between communication partners, in addition to a reduction in the usual inhibitions that operate when interacting with one’s superiors in a work environment[20], but more recent research has found that the depersonalizing effects depend on the particular content of those group norms.[21]

Robert Kraut – Positive tendencies

Social psychologist and professor of human-computer interaction Robert Kraut found that the effects of Internet use on existing close relationships, such as those between family and friends, proved to produce negative outcomes such as depression and loneliness and neglect of existing close relationships. Kraut conducted a two-year study in 1998 that followed a convenience sample of Pittsburgh residents and their families whom had not had a computer in their homes, and gave them a computer and Internet access. The study found a reliable, yet small increase in reported depression and loneliness as a function of the increased Internet consumption. [22] However, Kraut later revisited these families in 2002 and found that these negative effects had largely disappeared and found that the greater Internet use was actually associated with positive psychological and social outcomes. In fact, he found that the more time individuals spent online, the more time they also spent face-to-face with family and friends. [23] In addition, a 2002 survey of US college students found that email was considered just as useful as face-to-face interactions for getting work done and building school-related relationships, and another study showed that 60% of students nationwide reported that the Internet had been beneficial to their relationships with classmates, compared to only 4% whom believed it had had a negative impact.[24]

Reinforcing existing relationships

The constant connectivity and passive information consumption is not only effecting our cognitive abilities, but also how we behave and relate to one another in both online and real world settings. In 2004, researcher Katelyn McKenna performed an extensive analysis at New York University examining various research studies proving both positive and negative effects of Internet use on the user’s psychological well being, the formation and maintenance of personal relationships, group memberships and social identity and drew according conclusions supporting both the benefits and detriments of people´s digital activities. McKenna assessed that the Internet essentially combines the features of its innovative predecessors like the telephone, radio and television through bridging distances and reaching mass audiences.  McKenna´s earlier research (2001) found that the main reason people use the Internet is to communicate with other people over e-mail, and that the principal reason why people send e-mail messages to others is to maintain interpersonal relationships. [25]  McKenna found that relationships formed on the Internet are highly similar or even better than those developed in person in terms of breadth, depth and quality. Her studies showed that a substantial proportion of the survey´s respondents reported having formed a close relationship with someone they had met on the Internet and that more than 50% had moved the Internet relationship to real life. Of these relationships, 22% reported that they had married, become engaged or moved in with the person they had met online. A two-year later follow up study on these respondents, found that these close relationships were just as stable over time as traditional relationships. {C}[26]

Anonymity and self- disclosure

McKenna’s participants reported that in an online setting they were better able to express their true selves, by presenting aspects they felt were important but that they usually felt they were unable to present in public. They also found that when Internet partners liked each other, they tended to project qualities of their ideal friends onto each other. In fact, research conducted in the late nineties showed promising evidence that long-distance relationship partners tended to idealize their absent partners and as a result reported higher relationship satisfaction compared to geographically close relationships. [27]

It is tempting to speculate why the anonymity posed by the Internet facilitates the formation of close relationships. Being anonymous reduces the risk of embarrassment or being judged from disclosing intimate details.  Intimate relationships, regardless in which territory they form, are largely based on self-disclosure that translates into a state of intimacy between couples. The Internet makes it possible to connect with virtually anyone with an Internet connection across the globe. Talking with strangers online may seem less threatening than being approached by a stranger on the street. Social media sites, dating sites and other people-matching websites largely exist in order to maintain existing relationships, expand networks and form new relationships. Statistics from 2012 revealed that 40 million people in the US have tried online dating, and that 17% of all marriages during the course of 2011 have been a result of online dating. Interestingly, the length of courtship for marriages that met online is 18.5 months, compared to 42 months for offline marriages. 20% of all current committed relationships started online. [28]

Considering that marriages resulting from online dating sites has increased rapidly the last few years, it is still hard to determine whether the divorce rate or happiness amongst couples whom met online compared to offline will have notably different outcomes.  The majority of research conducted before 2004 concludes that as opposed to the widespread contention that the Internet is an isolating, personally and socially maladaptive activity it actually maintains and improves close relationships as well as facilitates the formation of close and meaningful new relationships within what is perceived as a relatively secure environment.

Several other national surveys have since concluded that Internet users have larger social networks and that the communication level amongst personal relationships has increased, suggesting that online tools are actually more likely to extend social contact than detract from it. However, a study from the National Institute of Education (NIE 2001) found contrasting results and argued that time is a limited commodity and that increased Internet usage had to come at a cost to other social activities. The researchers eventually established that the increase in Internet use was associated with a decrease in television and newspaper reading, and not at the cost of social interaction with friends and family. [29]

Sherry Turkle – Are we alone together?

Global problems, advertisers, social networks, family and effectively ourselves are struggling to capture our scarce attention in a hyper-connectivity environment in which our attention is considered a bottleneck. MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle is amongst the most renowned researchers within this field. Turkle has conducted fifteen years of research and several hundred interviews with adolescents and adults examining the effects technology has on our own thoughts and feelings, and how our plugged-in lives are changing how we behave and relate towards each other in real world relationships. In her book "Alone Together; why we expect more from technology and less from each other" (2012), she argues that as we expect more from technology and less from each other, we seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of a relationship. She calls on society to move away from multitasking in favor of 'unitasking' so that we become more aware of how our divided attention spans and states of constant connectivity are affecting our relationships to the people closest to us. Her caution is that all the small digital devices we keep so religiously close are so powerful that they “are not only changing what we do, but who we are”.

Her investigation has proven that although certain personalities find the Internet an arena where genuine personal connections based on mere personalities are enabled as factors like age, gender, race and physical attractiveness aren’t equally apparent as in real world settings, most people find that their digital devices are taking away precious time from the conversation that constitute the real relationships and as a result are left unhappy, lonely and depressed. She argues that in home environments, families are physically in the same place, however they are psychologically tied up in their connections with their virtual worlds. Children reported that they felt neglected by their parents whom are unconsciously paying more attention to their phones and laptops rather than engaging in their children’s lives, modeling this behavior as acceptable. One adolescent stated “someday, but certainly not now, it would be good to learn how to have an actual conversation” (Turkle p.65) Turkle’s interviews showed that adolescents preferred communicating primarily through instant messages and social media, expressing that “texting is always better” (Turkle p.65).[30]

Turkle’s concern is that we can’t get enough of each other- that is, as long as we can keep each other at distances we can control carefully safeguarded behind text messages and emails that we can edit, delete or retouch. She emphasizes the importance of conversation with others in order to converse with ourselves and learn the skills of self-reflection. She acknowledges the benefits of being able to connect across distances and for random bursts of affection, however she is worried that the tendency to rely on text messages, emails and instant messaging for contact is affecting our ability to have real live conversations. Face-to-face conversations unfold slowly and when communicating through digital devices we acquire different habits. Turkle worries that as we increase the quantity and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers and in order to get these fast answers; we are prone to ask each other simpler questions, thereby dumbing down our communication skills. She argues that the authenticity of these real time conversations are the foundations of relationships and that without them, nothing significant is left.

“No one is listening”

Turkle explains that having a Facebook page, a website or a twitter feed provides a false sense of being heard and believes this is why so many people are willing to talk to machines that seem to care about us. Her interviews showed that some people preferred and were comforted by communicating personal problems to artificial intelligence, or social robots, suggesting that they are the only ones listening when no one else will. Researchers around the world are working to develop social robots designed to be companions for the elderly, children or whomever is feeling neglected, avoided or lonely. Like Carr’s assessment that the Internet is designed to function as an interruption system, “a machine geared for dividing attention”, Turkle finds that people are also using technologies for intimacy that were designed simply for efficiency “They’ve become popular in the area of intimacy because you don’t have to reveal yourself. You can compose what you want to say until it’s exactly the way you want.”

“I share, therefor I am”

Mary Stairs Vaughn, professor of communication studies at Belmont University explains that in our everyday interactions, we are constantly trying to manage others impressions of us. Asynchronous, text-based communication allows for much more selectivity in the presentation of the self. [31] Turkle says that the notion “I share, therefor I am” has evolved because we use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we´re having them and she fears that we have migrated away from “I have a feeling, I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text”. [32]

It may seem as though we are constantly struggling between trying to be the person we present our selves as online, and when failing to live up to our glorified profiles, we get depressed and feel like we are not living up to our own or others expectations of us. Instead of talking to each other, it seems we are now more likely to read about each other.

“We never feel alone”

Turkle explains that when people are left alone, or in an unfamiliar environment they instinctively reach for their devices, “Technology has become our rescue because we never feel alone”. Her studies reveal that beyond incessant communication lies a deep human need for stillness, solitude, and intimacy, and that despite our notion that constant connection will make us feel less lonely, we are actually more likely to feel lonely because we are unable to be alone. “If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely” she warns in a TED talk (2011). She argues that adults are modeling the behaviors they are criticizing their kids for inheriting, and that children are learning that they are not most important in their parents lives. Turkle says that in order for us to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. This constant connectivity may seem like an escape from loneliness, and when we lack the ability to feel lonely we turn to other people, but don’t experience their true selves. “It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves”. She describes our society as one in which we are always communicating; yet sacrificing real conversations for mere connection.

“Just because we grew up with the Internet, doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.”

Turkle does not condemn the further development of technology and our growing infatuation for our digital best friends. She finds, however, that as the tendency to become depressed and lonely due to digital dependency grows, the trend will eventually stagnate as more and more people realize that they aren’t happy and are neglecting their real world relationships in order to stay connected in their virtual ones. She recommends reintroducing the gift of attention and expanding our attention spans in order to really listen to each other, including all the boring and unedited moments, because it is these bits “moments in which we hesitate, stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another”. [33] She reasons that digital technology is still in its infancy and that there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it, “Just because we grew up with the Internet, doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.”

Reinforcing existing relationships

Developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield worries that the same danger of superficiality evident in multitasking is just as harmful to friendships as it is to learning. “We evolved as human beings for face-to-face interactions. As more and more interaction becomes virtual, we could lose qualities like empathy that are probably stimulated by face-to-face interaction.” She worries that young generations whom now have social networks including nearly one thousand friends will let few long-term relationships give way to many superficial, fleeting relationships. [34]

In cooperation with her colleague Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Greenfield published a study through Princeton University (2008) that examined adolescents' relationships with friends, romantic partners, strangers, and their families in the context of all the online communication tools available. Contrary to Turkle, their study showed that adolescents are using electronic communication tools primarily to reinforce existing relationships, both with friends and romantic partners. More and more they are integrating these tools into their "offline" worlds, using, for example, social networking sites to get more information about new entrants into their offline worlds. Their findings show that adolescents mainly use social networking sites to keep in contact with their offline lives, both to make plans with whom they see often and to keep in touch with friends who they see rarely. Using electronic communication tools as a way to keep in touch with friends is a departure from the earlier stages of the Internet, when contacting strangers was more frequent. Subrahmanyam and Greenfield questioned whether online-communication comes at the expense of time spent in face-to-face communication, and found that during the past century adolescents have become increasingly more separated from adult life, and are spending more time with their peers. Ironically, the researchers found it hard to distinguish whether online communication is changing the amount and nature of interactions with families and relatives because the multitasking nature of most online communication makes it hard for subjects to provide accurate estimates of time they spend on different activities. 


Self-disclosure appears to be an important variable in the quality of computer mediated relationships, however it is not entirely clear how many relationships initially established online survive long enough to become high quality relationships with intimacy and support. A recent study found that offline relationships were higher in quality initially, but not when both relationships lasted more than a year. The duration of these kinds of relationships was an important component as the increased duration of the relationship offered more opportunities for information exchange and greater self-disclosure. {C}[35]

“Depersonalizing the process of interpersonal communication”

Concern continues to spark as research showing that adolescents’ excessive use of electronic communication with peers is weakening their relationships to parents and siblings. An intense four-year video study (2007) of thirty dual-earner families with children partly showed how technology plays a distinctive part in modern family life. The study showed that when parents returned home from work, they were greeted by their technologically absorbed children only one third of the time. Half the time, the children ignored their parents completely and continued multitasking and monitoring their various electronic gadgets, toughening the parent’s efforts to penetrate their child’s world often causing them to retreat. [36] However, a study by Gustavo Mesch (2006) found that family time was not affected when adolescents used the computer for educational purposes because this behavior was highly valued by parents and consistent with parental expectations, but only when they used it for social purposes did family conflicts increase and family interaction become negatively affected.  [37]

In Norway there was a series of focus groups including teenagers, young adults and parents that tested the implications of cell phone use in family life. They found that teens used cell phones to establish generational boundaries like screening phone calls from parents, and that cell phones undermined family rituals like mealtimes and vacations. The most powerful way in which cell phone use challenged family interaction was through the individualization of communication and the fact that parents are no longer able to control who their kids are talking to. [38] According to Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, the trend amongst adolescents to rely on electronic mediums as opposed to face-to-face interaction “relatively depersonalizes the process of interpersonal communication”. (P. 136)




Erosion of attention

Award winning author Maggie Jackson expresses her concerns of a society in which our capacity for deep attention, functioning as the building blocks for intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress is eroding.  In her book  “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the coming Dark Age” she explains that the dangers of multitasking and the information overload causes diffused attention and that fragmented moments are corrosive to relationships. Her concerns are similar to those of Turkle and Carr, “the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and blocks out cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we will overlook and misinterpret important information.” While Jackson also acknowledges that technology creates new iterations of community and levels of connectivity, she is worried that the hyper-connectivity is changing what it means to be present. Like Carr, she worries that multitasking and information overload will deteriorate our ability to engage in-depth thinking, but is concerned that the lack of respect for a moment is also complicating the chance to nourish in depth-interactions. “Across our lifetimes, mutual focus is the launch point and bedrock of any social situation. When we give others half our attention or allow interruptions to pepper our time together, we undermine the chance for a true “meeting of minds.” She describes our digital age as a distracted one and is afraid that if we don’t change our actions we may collectively nurture a form of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information, but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world.

Like Turkle, she assesses that fragmented moments and diffused attention may be corrosive to our relationships and exemplifies through the sociologist Danah Boyd whom parsed the five-year old inbox of a 24-year old boy and found that he had ties to 11,7 million people in the world. This random experiment was illustrated to prove how breadth, not depth, has become the norm in a world of hyper-connectivity. Jackson’s broader point is that not only is our email occupying our time, it is also plugging us into ever-widening circles of contacts, navigated via thinner, faceless means of communication because we have less time to go deeply with others.[39] She refers to a study (2001) by the Family and Work Institute whom found that nearly a third of workers say they’re too busy and interrupted to process or reflect on the work they do. She also notes that mothers multitask on average of 80 hours a week, double the amount from 1975.[40]


The media has insistently reported and emphasized the negative effects caused by the Internet during the last decade- and on some level, we have all noticed how our tendency to lose our trail of thought or focus on one task for an extended time period has become increasingly hard during the past decade. People may not be aware or reflected upon their actions to evaluate the consequences these behaviors are having on us. But who is to say that we must?

Most people, when presented with these facts are either frightened to acknowledge the research or recognize how their peers or own behaviors and attention spans have changed. Other people view these concerns as yet another excuse for the media to cultivate a concerned society, and argue that people have always been able to adapt to new technology and innovations.

Being less socially engaged in real time due to constant connectivity is a more noticeable behavior and easier to become aware of than our impaired efficiency due to multitasking and should thus be easier to do something about.  Thoughts- not only the ones we have when we are online, but also the ones we have when engaging in other activities- are not as noticeable or easy to change. When told to not think about an object, it is impossible not to think about it, my point being that it is easier and more measurable to change our actions than our thoughts. We can improve on both arenas and the research is conclusive, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative, that there is a distinct behavioral difference as a result of the Internet. Technology has changed and we have changed as a result of technology and we will undoubtedly continue to change. Awareness is the key ingredient to develop in a direction that will enhance the benefits and limit the detriments. Like all former technological developments that have attracted attention and concerns, there is no reason to dismiss these concerns as false. It might in fact be that because research studies and media reporting have created awareness in the past, people have been more adept to consciously adapt to technological innovations.

Technology has changed not only the way we work and live our lives but also the ways in which we seek stimulation through the form of news, entertainment and social relations. The television was another invention that turned out to significantly impact the social ties and community life, as opposed to the former inventions that more or less raised many irrational fears. In Robert Putnam´s book “Bowling Alone” (2000) he proved that the increase in television consumption reduced the amount of time spent on community involvement (like memberships in fraternal organizations and bowling leagues) and social engagements (like theaters, pubs, clubs). Obviously the dramatic changes caused by this invention has sprawled concerns that the Internet might have displaced time formerly spent with friends and family. [41]

No one can fix a problem without being aware that there exists one. We have evolved in a world in which our brains are required to concentrate on a selected few, but differently related things at once. As hunters, warriors and industrialists we were presented with various tasks, but they were related to one another and didn’t require the same cognitive shifting cost as we see today, where most of our tasks and informational sources are not related to one another. Carr states that our brains are not built to handle this new way of function at the time being. However, with all the research proving the brains plasticity and unique human ability to adapt, it may only be that we are developing towards a society in which our abilities will be fine tuned to acquire the new skills required in a society in which desired skills are vastly different than what the hunters of the past found necessary.

Although research concludes that we are currently performing worse due to multitasking and frequent media interruptions, there is reason to trust that we in time will be able to efficiently teach proficient multitasking skills, handle information overload and create learning environments tailored to the new ways of accumulating information- as this evidently will become the future whether one choses to embrace it or not. Like prior technological inventions, there seems no point to combat a development that is indisputably transforming the way we work, think and relate to each other. There will be extensive amounts of research examining the further implications of technology in a long term perspective, and many will likely continue to suggest both the benefits and impairments of these advancements, because like in all life arenas, there will always be pros and cons. The solution lies in raising awareness, embracing it cautiously with positivity, creativity and with the intelligence that made our new technologically dependent lives the new normal.

“Life wasn’t real without the Internet”

To determine the real effects on how technology affects us, the best way would presumably be to monitor the differences in an historical context in which social behavior was researched before societies rendered to technology. There are parts of the world where this would be possible, but determining the real changes in the United States today is impossible considering the degree in which technology is imbedded.


The Verge technology journalist, Paul Miller, decided to conduct a personal experiment by realizing the illusion of an Internet free life and examining the true effects of the Internet on a personal level. Miller had spent his career covering virtually all aspects within technological development and had become prone to project his personal problems onto the claimed detrimental effects of the Internet. Miller decided that for an entire year he would resist the Internet entirely.

“I had read enough articles and books about how the Internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the Internet was doing to me, so I could fight back”. On May 1, 2013, Miller returned to the Internet with a disappointing revelation- he found that life without the Internet did not make him happier, less lonely, distracted or active. In fact, he found that life offline was even lonelier. Miller’s ultimate epiphany arrived after a conversation with net theorist Nathaniel Jurgenson who pointed out that the clear distinctions between virtual and real life no longer exist: “There is a lot of reality in the virtual, and a lot of virtual in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh and blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the Internet still impacts our thinking, “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”

Miller concluded that, “The Internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The Internet is where people are. “I might waste time, get distracted, click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel. But at least I’ll be connected.” Paul concluded that his pursuit to find the “real” Paul in the absence of the Internet made him realize that the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the Internet. “Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the Internet, just that it wasn’t real life”. [42]

It is hard to determine whether one agrees with these findings on a personal level. The evidence is clear, regarding both the positive and negatives, but research shows that individuals react differently. Introverts might be more prone to see the new way of connecting as positively revolutionizing to their social network, however the same online interactions may produce negative outcomes for extroverts whose social needs require real human interactions. Nonetheless, it is worth evaluating whether online connections and increased multitasking has in fact made society more or less efficient, social or psychologically content.

We need to accept the realities of the present world, as there is no point working against them. Like Carr reasons; skimming, multitasking and extensive decision making processes will play an important role as part of our most important skill sets in the future. Our current society rewards individuals who are constantly connected and able to handle multiple tasks and conversations simultaneously. Amidst this increase in perceived productivity it is important to bear in mind that deep-focus, problem solving and connections in the form of real human interactions have always been consistent aspects of human development and are necessary as fundamental parts of wisdom and intimacy.

Recent research and history itself gives reason to believe that efficient multitasking skills will improve and inventive ideas will continue to flourish. However, it does not require much personal reflection to determine that our occasional undivided attention is vital to building and nurturing interpersonal relationships. A recent article in The New York Times[43] stated that the former dinner-table trend of comparing new apps and YouTube clips has evolved into a norm of storing all phones in one place, the first person to claim theirs back becoming responsible for settling the check. Although a minor improvement, it shows a growing trend to reclaim the control of our lives that we have unconsciously delegated to technology.

Neil Postman argued the paradox behind the invention of the mechanical clock. This invention was initially developed by Christian monks to dedicate their time to God, but became a way to regulate and impose standardized hours on people, and particularly to the modern man whom systematically dedicated his time to the accumulation of money. (Technopoly page. 14) Ironically, it is not hard to see the paradox behind the new technologies that are originally developed to increase efficiency and facilitate connections, but are in fact having the opposite effect as our attentions are diffused and our close interpersonal relationships threatened by the increasing desire to stay constantly connected to the rest of the world.

Our attention is crucial to both individual and societal success as it gives us the ability to focus on goals, control ourselves through self discipline in an increasingly flexible and boundaryless world and to be able to carry out nuanced, analytic and critical thinking. From nature we are programmed to react to the new, the different or threatening in our surroundings, whether it is our ancestors’ reaction to threats in the woods or our own reaction to every ping from our phone. We need to learn how to balance our attention in order to stay alert to the changes in our surroundings, but also to do the work necessary in order to reach our goals.

My research has proved that studies concluding the negative effects of multitasking are extensively more widespread and cited than those whom find positive effects. Nonetheless, it is still early and recent research suggests that the tension between technological development and human behavior will normalize. When the television was introduced to the general public it was considered revolutionizing- and scientists at the time were equally worried that its existence would detriment our social lives as they predicted that the need to seek stimulation from each other would become extinct. Today, research shows that although television has had both positive and negative effects on society as a whole, people still engage in social settings, seek friends and family for conversation and engage in politics. Today, during the invasion of the mobile device into virtually every aspect of our time and day, our personalities are still getting acquainted with the “rush” we get when information or requests for contact is sent our way.  However, whether this behavior is having a critically negative affect on our real life relationships and social manners remains ambiguous- social norms may change, and although certain relationships may suffer, sufficient research suggests that many will also prevail as a function of this.                

As our use of technology bleeds into virtually all aspects of our lives, an increasing need for reflection and awareness is necessary to evaluate the implications technology accounts for, not only on our ability engage in deep thinking and focus on tasks, but also on a personal level in regards to relationships, social lives and friendships- for the better or worse.








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