Technology’s psychological price tag

Psychology professor Barbara L. Frederickson published a provocative piece in The New York Times this past weekend. In it, she previews her soon-to-be-published research that suggests that your pocketful of irresistible screens may be, oh, I don’t know, rewiring your brain.

The nascent research in this field obviously carries some major potential ramifications for those of us who are interested in new ways to work and collaborate in this mobilized, often-dispersed and ever-connected world.

“If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so,” Frederickson writes. She repeatedly makes the point that “use it or lose it” doesn’t just apply to your bulging biceps and, working herself into a dystopian fever, finishes by urging you to pull your friends away from their screens lest they “lose their capacity for humanity.” (Directly under this call-to-arms, of course, is an option to share the article with your friends via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

The article’s accompanying illustration pretty much sums up my own nightmare about the new way of doing things: an adult hand holds a mobile phone, relegating a sad-eyed, attention-deprived baby to the background. The cost of checking your email on your phone, it seems to say is that you become a lesser parent; the cost of your digital freedom is less real freedom. “Told ya so!” Marissa Mayer may be saying.

If the big takeaway is that parents, friends and lovers remember to spend more time being parents, friends and lovers and less time playing Minecraft and posting dumb quotes on Facebook… great. But I think we often fall into a false dichotomy when talking about “real social encounters,” as Frederickson puts it, and the bogeyman version of “social” that usually comes up in these discussions (i.e. the sort of “social” that is entirely comprised of people telling strangers what they had for lunch). We’ve known for a while that water cooler conversations are good for morale and, by extension, productivity and profit. A growing amount of research suggests that this is true regardless of whether you are rehashing The Walking Dead at a coworker’s desk or doing it via web conference, Google Hangout, IM or activity stream. Telecommuters were once stereotyped as hermits, but today’s work-from-homers are better connected and more productive than ever.

A screen can be a barrier, yes, and anyone who’s had to deal with comment trolls is probably sympathetic to Frederickson’s warning about the digital age causing the downfall of humanity. But technology can also be a – yes, ahem – bridge. The reality is that most of us won’t be sharing in-person smiles with all of our colleagues every day, so it’s been heartening to hear stories of workers in New York who are so in tune with colleagues in India that they sometimes forget they’re not in the same office. As the research continues to accumulate, I suspect we’ll gain an even better understanding of the importance of these connections – of the old and new varieties alike. In the meantime, if you feel like all your screen time is turning you from a social animal to a passive robot, it’s always good to remind ourselves to unplug once in a while. Right after you share this on your social networks, of course, please and thank you.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.