The walking-dead phenomenon

Rangers at national parks have a new duty: rescuing visitors from life-threatening selfies.

An increasing number of park visitors have been trying to photograph themselves in the company of parks’ wild animals. People who would not think of walking into the woods to pet a bear feel no compunction about getting close enough for a smartphone camera two-shot with an untamed critter. When rangers see an overeager snapshot taking shape, they remind the visitor that these wild animals still have plenty of wild in them — and they lead the snap-happy selfer back to safety.

Bicycle racers could use the same kind of minders. Spectators at some races have begun leaping onto the course, turning their backs on approaching cyclists, and snapping selfies to include the riders — if they can do so before the cyclists crash into them. It’s ironic; a study by Fairfield University psychologists suggests that people who commemorate special events by taking cascades of smartphone photos are less likely to remember details of the event than people who just watch it.

Where’s the humanity?

There’s no doubt smartphones put a wealth of capabilities at our fingertips. It’s also clear their use affects our sense of self-preservation and common sense. A growing body of research indicates smartphones are augmenting the dark side of social media, making it, for too many of us, ever-present and irresistible.

A 2013 study at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University, for example, found that smartphones, and the social media apps we lard them with, may intensify a range of personality and behavioral traits, turning them into compulsions that might otherwise have remained latent or, at least, manageable.

• Social-interaction anxiety is the fear of dealing with others face to face. Social media offer the links to stay in contact with people, but at arm’s length — a balance that mitigates the anxiety. But, paradoxically, smartphones also aggravate the problem by making the source of anxiety ever-present. A person with social-anxiety disorder will worry about creating a bad impression by not responding quickly to texts, emails, Facebook posts and other prompts. He/she will be compulsively tethered to the smartphone, coiled to pounce on every new alert.

• An individual’s placement of the “locus of control” — their sense that life is shaped either by internal choices and controls or by outside forces — may leave them vulnerable to compulsive behavior. Persons who believe that fate, instead of their own judgment, holds the key to their future are more likely to relentlessly scan emails and social media for news, invitations or chance encounters that will send their lives in new, positive directions. “Externals,” as these people are called, are reluctant to be parted from their smartphones for fear of missing that call of destiny.

• People with a strong need for touch — people who shake your hand with both of theirs, touch your arm while they talk with you, or slap you on the back — are more likely to use smartphones compulsively, according to the study. The reason: smartphones require touch. Flick the screen to activate them, press icons to open apps, and thumb the keyboard to send messages. Smartphones indulge their tactile urges.

• Logically enough, people who link their identity and self-worth to their possessions are more likely to regard a stylish or full-featured smartphone as a positive extension or expression of himself or herself. For materialistic people, using the phone becomes a reaffirmation of their inherent value, which often leads to compulsive use.

New anxieties for the techno age

The study concluded that people with these tendencies are prone to compulsive smartphone use, which, in turn, leads to “technostress” — a syndrome defined, in part, by the need to spend increasing amounts of phone time to achieve satisfaction, and using the phone to relieve feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety and depression. Indeed, a 2010 report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences drew parallels between substance addiction and behavioral addiction. Both change the chemistry of the brain and alter patterns and priorities of needs and rewards.

Smartphone addiction also is inflamed by FOMO — the fear of missing out — a problem rampant enough to have its own acronym. A person prone to social insecurities often fears that friends will “gather” online without them, leading to feelings of being left out or ostracized. Being the last to read a Facebook post or comment on a Snapchat can feel like losing a contest.

As a result, an increasing number of people literally don’t let their smartphone out of their hands. They clutch the phones for fear of losing the few seconds it would take to pull the phone from a pocket and flick it on. A 2012 report published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing found the average smartphone user checks the device 34 times a day, often without the phone prompting them. There’s even the phenomenon of “phantom vibration syndrome,” in which people confuse muscle twitches or the touch of their pants on their legs for phone vibrations. Some studies have found that more than 70 percent of smartphone owners sleep with the device beside the bed or under their pillow, a sizable minority waking in the night to check for new messages.

But such studies don’t tackle the larger question: Do smartphones and social media cause compulsive behavior or personality disorders in people not prone to them?

Larry Rosen, a psychologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills and co-author of the book iDisorder, thinks the question may be too intricate to answer. However, he does note that the biochemistry of mood disorders, such as depression, can be triggered by external events. And anxiety-based behaviors — such as compulsively checking our phones, patting our pockets to make sure they’re there, waking in the night to see if anyone sent a message — pour cortisol and other stress hormones into our bloodstreams. While smartphones can’t authoritatively be said to cause personality disorders, they don’t help lessen the risk.

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