As denizens of an industrialized society, college students would be completely incapable of leading lives without the constant assistance of technological aid. From the alarm clock that wakes students up in the morning to the iPod that lulls them to sleep, and every step in between, they are consumed by technology.
Students cannot avoid it. Technology has become so engrained in their daily lives that they interact with it without thinking about it. Everyday, students drink water filtered through massive water treatment plants; they eat cereal made from wheat that has never touched human hands; they eat chicken nuggets made from birds that have never seen the light of day; they turn on their computers and flood their brains with a wealth of information that is expanding at an inconceivable rate. Digital content created this year alone is expected to exceed 1.2 zettabytes. That’s enough to fill every hard drive in the state of Minnesota to capacity.
The technological revolution has transformed human existence on an incomprehensible scale and it has done so in little more than a century. Progress of that magnitude has never been seen before in history. Yet for the wealth of benefits technology has brought, it is also, undeniably, killing the generation of technologically-dependent people.
College students have heard thousands of times that they are lazy, and how sitting in front of the television and eating from the drive-thru is turning them into a nation of obese hippos with clogged arteries. From how students get their food to how they get news, their technological lives are having a devastating effect on their health, and the health of the planet.
Reprogramming College Brains
College students have become a society of on-demand. From I-want-it-now television offered by TiVo and Hulu, to frozen, ready-to-eat food available at any gas station, they have become accustomed to having everything they want at their fingertips, ready in an instant. All of this instant gratification has begun to rewire their brains. The frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and self-control, is stimulated every time you reach for something on-demand. As the act of wanting something is repeatedly associated with the act of gratification, humans are slowly but surely decreasing their patience for all things slow. The brain is rewiring itself to hate waiting.
The more connections made in the brain, the more effective the neurological response is. What used to annoy you now makes you outright angry. Anger erupts if a computer takes more than a few seconds to perform any given task. And again, if there is a line, or a guy on the thruway in the left lane going 65 mph. With all this anger comes a surge of adrenaline.
Adrenaline, the hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response, is incredibly useful when contemplating fighting that giant grizzly bear, but much less so when stuck behind that customer intent on paying in loose change in the check-out line. Adrenaline has several effects on the body that can, over time, cause serious health problems. Adrenaline increases blood pressure, which is already a prevailing problem, and it constricts blood vessels. The combination of these effects can lead to coronary problems and heart attack.
Distracted to Distraction by Distraction
College students are a distracted lot. Everywhere they go, the world is competing for their attention. Most Americans are exposed to over 3,000 advertisements per day, through billboards, television and print ads. As prolific internet users, college students are bombarded with even more ads online.
Internet advertising, however, has a few positives: It’s what allows many web companies to offer the services they do for free. Without web ads there would be no Twitter, Facebook or Google. The nasty downside is that they add even more distractions to already distracted lives.
Chronic distraction can have serious effects on both mental and physical health. According to Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, chronic distraction can cause diseases similar to those caused by chronic stress, including cardiac problems and irreversible brain damage. Meyer says that Americans working in offices who use computers most of the day are showing the same kinds of mental breakdown by middle age as those working high-stress jobs, such as air traffic controllers.
According to a 2009 web survey by America Online and Salary.com, Americans waste an average of two hours per day on tasks resulting from distraction. Fourty-four percent of Americans cite surfing the internet as their biggest distraction at work. For college students, who spend more time than average online, that number is presumed to be much higher.
Many college students pride themselves on their abilities to multitask, but research out of the École Normale Supérieur, an institute for higher learning in Paris, shows that the brain isn’t actually capable of focusing on two separate tasks at once. What happens is that the brain continuously switches back and forth between two different operations. So not only must the brain cope with two separate operations at the same time, it must also put effort into switching between goals. This is a very inefficient use of the brain, and causes drastic decreases in the quality of both tasks.
While that loss in quality is hardly important if the tasks in question are doing the dishes and listening to music, it can be the difference between life and death when performing critical tasks like driving. College students are some of the most distracted drivers on the road — between making phone calls, answering text messages, looking at a GPS, and adjusting the stereo, their minds don’t have a lot processing power left for driving. The consequences are often fatal.
Where Did the Time Go?
Technological advancement has long been spurred on by the promise of making life easier, of speeding things up and giving people more time. In many ways, that goal has succeeded. A trip from London to New York, a voyage that took months by ship a century ago, can now be accomplished in a few hours. Email can whisk a letter across the globe in seconds, far faster than Ben Franklin could have ever hoped for his postal system. Somehow, society has ended up not with more time on their hands, but less. Where did it all go?
Technology ate it up. According to numbers released this January by Nielsen, the same company that monitors how many people watch television shows, Americans spent over seven hours a day on Facebook. On top of that, gamers spend roughly 18 hours a week playing video games — easily enough to qualify as a part-time job.
Yet Americans spend more time at work than Europeans. They also take about one-third as much vacation time than their European counterparts.
Americans are so busy, in fact, that they have begun to abandon what was once considered a cornerstone of the American way of life: the family dinner. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that eating dinner together is one of the healthiest things a family can do. Families tend to eat healthier varieties of food, especially vegetables, when eating together. Family dinners can also have great developmental benefits for children. Children who regularly eat dinner with their parents are less likely to smoke cigarettes or develop substance abuse problems later in life. Communal meals are also a great way to reduce stress and tension within families by providing a forum for family members to air grievances and discuss the troubles in their lives.
Despair Not, Children of the Web
College students, and Americans in general, face a multitude of challenges in their paths. Some of these are caused by the natural environment, others by people looking to do them harm, but many people bring it upon themselves. That is the blessing and the curse of the modern technological world. It brings with it the ability to solve many problems — from food production to worldwide communication and everything in between. But it also brings many unforeseen challenges that must be dealt with in their own turn.
We must be vigilant that what we’ve produced to make our lives easier doesn’t come back to bite us in the end.