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Editorial: The smartphone twitch

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question.
To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question.

Try it at a party some time.

Take your smart phone out of your pocket, as if you’ve just felt the gentle vibration of an arriving text. But don’t even wake it up — if you turn the phone on, you might get distracted and miss the whole point of the exercise.

No, look at your blank phone for a moment or two, and then slide it back into your pocket or purse. Then watch.

No matter how engaging the conversation, no matter how close and enjoyable your friends are, you’ll see the other phones sneak out. And until they do, it’s surprising how uncomfortable and twitchy your friends will become.

It’s not universal, of course: there are those among us who have yet to be indoctrinated into the brotherhood and sisterhood of the endorphin phone rush. Heck, there are still flip-phones around occasionally, and individuals with the strength to resist the urge.

But it’s fewer and fewer every day.

We’ve built an impressive technology — one that can get our attention during almost any waking hour, even if we neither enjoy what we’re seeing or take any real pleasure in being constantly up to date.

We’re addicted to that little rush, as much as we might despise being tied to the Internet world. Close to one in eight Americans already has a demonstrable Internet addiction, and the numbers are growing.

Go on your phone and look up Internet or electronic addiction, and you will see reams of information — gotcha! You’re looking at your phone again, right? Feeling the itch?

Then look at teens and 20-year-olds — they’re in constant contact with their phones and the Internet, to the point that they literally cannot function without them. You can only imagine how stressed youngsters must be at the very idea of phone-free schools, an idea that’s growing in popularity. Children and even babies are being introduced to phones and tablets as distractive devices at an incredibly early age — sure, it’s a learning tool, but it’s also a crutch.

Behavioral scientist argue that we’re reprogramming our brains, that we’re training ourselves to want a jolt of news or information or just plain contact every few seconds — and that the rewiring is difficult to change, especially when smart phones and other electronics are integral to family organization and contact. You can’t simply choose to opt out.

But here’s a question, not only about what we’re doing to ourselves, but about how that change in brain chemistry can be exploited in the future — are we sowing the seeds for all sorts of addictive issues later?

The way we’re changing our brains, and the way that brain chemistry toys with us, leaves us particularly vulnerable to anything from video gambling devices to marketing that can play on the new pathways we’re building.

For us right now, smartphones could be seen as a threat. But for someone else, they may well be a dangerous opportunity.

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