Does technology help or hurt ADD?

My generation is like no other when it comes to our experiences with technology. We are true technology natives, but we also remember a time when we were not completely immersed in a digital world. For this reason, we are unique. My parents’ generation sure didn’t grow up with tiny mobile devices that tell you about “everything,” and they didn’t carry Blackberries to contact coworkers during off time. Contrast this with the preschoolers of today. My little four year old cousin is ever so eager to shove that USB cable into the matching port and gets upset when her electronics don’t work. Whatever happened to just playing in the sandbox and enjoying being a kid?

I remember my beginning experiences with the Apple computer laboratory in early elementary school that our school sponsored weekly. However, when I came home all the fancy technology stayed at school. There was no iPad or shiny touchscreen device serving as an enticing distraction to keep me from doing my math homework.

“I don’t know if I could have done it during those days.” Those were the words of my psychologist I went to in regards to managing ADD in the face of the distractions of today’s world. He told me he has ADD too surprisingly, and this is probably one of the reasons why he was the single most helpful mental health professional when others have failed.

Technology and its effect on attention

It seems that something strange is happening today. I have had ADD symptoms my entire life long before I even interacted with a computer. However, people who would otherwise not have attention difficulties are struggling to stay focused.

Nicolas Carr originally wrote the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which was published in The Atlantic in 2008. His writings received much uproar from the most passionate technophiles to the utmost technology loathing luddites to everyone in between.

He later published the book The Shallows where he continued to list one negative consequence after another about how technology is damaging our brains. Instead of cultivating continuous thoughts and deep reading like traditional books, Carr argues the internet leads readers to skim text in fragments and this leads to overall poor comprehension and memory of what is being read. With so many things completing for our attention – hyperlinks, videos, email notifications, advertisements – readers simply get overloaded and burn out. After all, attention is a precious limited resource.

Technology and its effect on society as a whole

Carr argues that the negative effects of constantly being plugged in leave an imprint on one’s mind long after the devices are left alone. Individual users may notices lapses in their concentration. However Carr goes on to say that the most telling effects of modern technology like the internet will be evident not now but in generations to come.

Current technology such as the internet have always had its critics. In the early nineties, media critic Neil Postman voiced his concern that modern technology may provide solutions to problems that previously had not existed before. (His question to a car salesman was, “What problem does cruise control solve?” The salesman responds by saying, “Well, it’s the problem of putting your foot on the gas.” Needless to say, Postman wasn’t thrilled with the salesman’s answer. ) Postman asks, “Am I using this technology, or is it using me?”

Beyond technology adding unneeded complexity to our lives and making us isolated shallow thinkers, some critics go as far as to say that the more we rely on computers, the less human we become. That is, we start thinking more rigid like the artificial machines we interact with on a daily basis. This was the thesis of author and technologist Jaron Lanier in his manifesto titled You are not a gadget. In the process of highly automated information, personal identity is less celebrated in favor of the anonymous whole.

In essence of all this negative talk about technology, I thought of a slogan that would make neo-luddites everywhere proud:

“Technology – the genius of a few leads to the stupidity of the many.” (This really should be on T-shirts and bumper stickers, shouldn’t it?)

All kidding aside, a question that comes to mind is “How do we best use technology while overcoming the negative effects of digitalization?”

Technology and its effects on attention – and therefore identity

In my freshmen year of college, I had to write a paper on my identity for a writing class final project. It was an open ended question without further instruction. I thought to myself that this seems like a rather grandiose topic with philosophical undertones and struggled to find an angle in which to focus my writing. Identity can encompass so many things such as who your friends are family are, where you live, your culture and beliefs, and the list can go on.

Years later, I came across a technology blog (of all places) that provided a simple, elegant and succinct definition of identity in which I asked myself, “How come I didn’t think of that?”

Technology product designer and blogger Rebekah Cox describes it best:

“Identity is not a password, it’s not root access, it’s not your calendar, it’s not your email, it’s not a technical achievement, it’s not your location, it’s not a user account in a system, it’s not your contacts and it’s not a feature.

So, what is identity? I think in its most basic form, your identity is the product of how you manage your attention and others’ access to that attention.”

If we stop for a moment and define identity as the sum of how one directs his or her attention, it may follow then that people with attention deficit disorder may have problems with their personal identity. See posts such as “ADD and weak identity” and “Identity problems.” Because of difficulties with focus, ADD individuals may feel like they are everywhere and nowhere at once. Digital distractions may contribute the problem of staying focused and provide one additional hurdle to overcome that the general population has to deal with, but such issues with attention and focus may further be exacerbated with a preexisting condition like ADD.

If critics have pointed out some legitimate concerns and side effects regarding modern tools , that leaves the question of what positive effects, if any, does technology offer to individuals who already struggle with attention difficulties?

I list some activities that can either be made easier using technology or can be made worse. I describe some of the benefits and the drawbacks of modern technology.

Technology & reading

One Nielsen study has found that people read 25% slower from a digital screen compared to regular printed text. This is obviously not good news if one already has a preexisting condition like “sluggish cognitive tempo.” Personally I do find that reading from a computer monitor is straining and slows me down even more so. However, after a decade or more of reading on a computer I have well gotten accustomed to the habit. But rather than simply getting accustomed to old habits, we do have better options to choose from now that eBook readers and tablets are officially household items.

A more updated Nielsen study compared the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle to reading from a computer screen as well reading from a traditional book. The result was that while people still read a paper book faster, the digital tablets were much easier to read than the computer screens. I think part of the reason is because when people read an old fashioned book, they are usually looking down at the pages instead of having the pages parallel to the floor. When I take my laptop screen and lay it flat on a desk, it magically becomes a little less straining to read. Of course, the benefit to using these sometimes eye-straining devices is that they serve as a hub to instant limitless information and media.

Personally I am a technology junkie and own multiple devices – laptop, Kindle, iPad, tablet PC, and more – but if I were every to appear in court justifying why I own so many devices I could provide very specific reasons for each. Now I’ll focus on reading and writing specifically on these gadgets.

Laptop/Computer – As Carr and other critics have warned, the web makes people experts at searching/skimming, but not experts at actual reading. However, if one were planning on writing a research paper, the next step after deciding on a topic would be to gather resources – and lots of them. I personally find using a standard mouse and keyboard much easier than using a touchscreen only device when I am creating anything – whether it is writing a paper or editing a video. (One of the major criticisms of the iPad is that it is mainly for consuming rather than producing.) What I like to do to save time and be efficient is to view research in stages such as 1) brainstorming a topic 2) gathering resources 3) reading & note-taking of resources 4) synthesis and composition. When doing wide horizontal gathering of information, I find that using the web – especially on a keyboard and mouse device – makes it easier to analyze a wide assortment of topics together. I view the gathering of resources phase like hunting for information that I then place in a virtual basket. But the main difficulty is having to be self-disciplined – working toward your goals while trying to avoid paying attention to the crap online. Sometimes it’s hard, really hard.

You know you have ADD when (fill in the blank):

“…you got 20 browser windows open, most with multiple tabs. Each following a separate train of thought. Then look at the clock and see that it’s 3 AM and all you wanted to do was check your email.” – alphaDork

(Yes, alphaDork; your non-ADD friends are making you look more normal each and every passing day.)

Kindle/eInk Device – I think the Kindle is a fabulous invention, especially for uninterrupted long reading sessions. But unlike the latest Apple gadgets, I like the Kindle for very different reasons than the other digital toys. When I pick up a Kindle, it just doesn’t feel like a glitzy gadget. In fact, it feels a little clumsy and I think that’s a good thing. For all the attention surrounding what all the devices can do, I appreciate the things that the Kindle can’t do; the Kindle zones in on reading specifically and not reading and also texting, taking pictures, Facebooking, YouTubing etc… When I start up my Kindle I am more times than not going to be doing some serious reading rather than aimless web browsing. The eInk technology looks very much like printed text so readers can really get lost in the content of what they are reading instead readjusting for screen glare. Even though you technically can kill time surfing the web on a Kindle, it’s rather clumsy and this actually deters you from doing so but if you need to research on Wikipedia it’s possible which is a real boon. In short, I find that the Kindle heavily cuts down on distractions that students often face when trying to read on a computer.

Tablet/Tablet PC – When it comes to reading PDF documents and textbook or educational material, I find it extremely beneficial to use a tablet. Not only are they portable and readers can hold them flat like a piece of paper, but tablets typically have higher resolutions than old school monitors which reduces eye strain. I also believe that professors are generally more welcoming of students taking notes with tablets rather than a laptop because tablets are like a digital scratchpad instead of a screen for students to hide behind while they do other stuff online. I own a full Windows tablet PC that I can use a stylus with to highlight text and write handwritten notes directly on it. Even though math is a subject I dread, I wish I had my tablet during my college courses so I can see if having a tablet would help to create more detailed and color coded notes.

Technology & spelling

One of the things that strike me as noteworthy is that many of my professors cannot spell (anymore), and I am not just talking about physics and algebra professors. I am talking about English, composition, and language arts professors. As an example, one professor had trouble spelling the word/prefix “pseudo” and the reason why I remember that example is because pseudo is a word I like and use a lot (because when someone is accused of believing is pseudoscience it is really just a polite way of saying that they believe in B.S.). I am not saying that some of those professors were never champions of their fifth grade spelling bee competition – they very well could have been great spellers at one point. I think technology may be to blame.

When using any modern device that accepts text input (such as a word editor program, an internet browser, or a smartphone), more likely than not it is equipped the handy spellcheck. The user usually does not have to take any additionally steps to activate this tool. All the writer does is spell a word wrong, and then poof like fairy dust, she is notified about her mistake. It is instantaneous feedback telling you what you did wrong.

In the information age, even good spellers may get used to this instant feedback and may even get lazy. (How dare I make this accusation?) Over time people get used to the habit of letting machines correct their mistakes, and if the machine tells them they are error-free then they must be good to go. As a case and point as to why one shouldn’t rely too much on spellcheck, one of my professors mentioned his published scholarly paper on “pubic discourse.” (Actually now as I type the phrase in my 2010 version of Microsoft Word, it is smart enough to alert me to change it. By baby steps, we are surely teaching the machine.)

But is spelling all that important anyway? In all the higher-order writing concerns such as developing a thesis and argument, spelling seems down low on the list to me. After all, calculators are doing all the low-level drudgery that allows people to come up with sophisticated solutions to sophisticated problems.

Technology: after all these precautions, what is it good for?

I think that where technology really shines for writers is for the organization and planning of writing. And it is organization and planning that people with ADD and ADHD have difficulties with. When I pick up a pen and paper to write an essay, there is an incessant feeling that it must be perfect the first time at the first attempt because editing that paper can be a messy process. However with digital text editors, writers no longer need to recopy an entire draft and can easily move paragraphs and ideas freely. Additionally, reading, writing and other learning disorders are sometimes coexistent with ADD so it is best to come up with alternative ways of learning and new media easily facilitates variety. In the case of typing up a paper, one can have more freedom to experiment with different styles of organization and flow. In current writing methodology, there is an emphasis that writing is a process, not a final product. Word processing allows writers to create “living documents” that change and evolve as the situation calls for it. In the case of reading, modern screens allow for highlighting and coloring up the pages for visual learners. The vast connectedness of the web allows for creatively connecting the points of otherwise discrete topics.

No doubt Neil Postman was right when he said that when technology benefits people and society, it simultaneously takes something away. But it is people’s individual choice to decide how best to use the tools to maximize gains and minimize harms.