The signs of tech stress are everywhere: The iPhone junkie freaking out over his contacts being swallowed alive by the new iOS 7 software. The office manager furiously swimming upstream against a never-ending flood of emails. The angry home-office worker hyperventilating over a computer virus and taking it out on a guy like Mike Kushner.
“We see people crying, we see people angry, we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they’ve lost,” said Kushner, the co-owner of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bay Area Computer Solutions, which provides paramedics for the digitally desperate. “People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everyone is on their computers and especially their smartphones. We get calls from CEOs with email problems and they’re going crazy, so it’s a good thing I took psychology classes in college because it helps me calm talk them off the ledge.”
Our growing addiction to technology has become even more dramatic thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices. While their benefits are bountiful, whether it’s the magic of GPS mapping or real-time access to everything under the sun, that same powerful computer in our pocket is also spawning obsessive behavior, often served up with heaping sides of angst.
Palo Alto psychologist Francine Toder calls it the “always on” syndrome. She has seen patients who are already “overwhelmed by life, and now their problems become much more complicated by all these new devices and nonstop data coming at them.”
We’ve all seen it. We’ve all felt it ourselves. The skipping heartbeat when your Android phone beeps with an alert. The nagging need to ceaselessly check for incoming texts and emails, even at the movies or while having dinner with friends or family. And then there’s the “phantom vibration syndrome,” that creepy sensation that your smartphone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.
Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante said solid clinical research on tech-induced anxiety is still in its early stages. Still, he said, all you have to do is look over at that texting driver next to you at the red light to see firsthand “how we’re all constantly using our phones to deal with boredom or to get an immediate answer to some trivial question. We’ve reached a point where it’s increasingly hard for people to have the mind at quiet.”
Plante got so fed up with his students sneaking peeks at their phones under their desks that “I now ban tech devices, and I have students do a one-minute mindful meditation at the start of every class. ‘Take a deep breath,’ I tell them, ‘and get yourselves together.’ ”
Not everyone, of course, is overwhelmed, said Gesine Schaffer, a retired psychologist in San Jose, Calif. “With my own grandkids, for example, this technology is just part of their culture. Kids see heavy use of these devices as normal, and I think they know how to manage that stress better than, say, a 60-year-old.”
Schaffer said mobile devices have become such an “essential part of our culture, especially among young people, that if they weren’t feeling some of that stress, they’d feel like they were missing out on something and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. These devices provide a sort of drama in their lives that they embrace.”
For those less adept at managing their use of these tools, or for people already grappling with stressed-out lives and other emotional problems, the always-on phenomenon can make a bad situation worse. Saratoga, Calif., psychologist Janet Redman said she’s had patients simultaneously so anxious and so tethered to their smartphones “that some have accidentally recorded their therapy session, or they’ve accidentally answered their phone so that the person on (the other end) can hear us talking.”
Redman said the latest social stressor is Apple’s software upgrade to iOS 7, a transition that has apparently left some users beside themselves after contacts were wiped out or photos were sent asunder.
It’s particularly troubling, she said, that even a software tweak “can drive so many people crazy.”