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Part 2: A Link Between Biology and Technology

(September 15, 2010)

Technology and the Biology of
Excessive Text Messaging

On the average, boys start puberty sometime between 10 and 15 years of age. Girls start earlier, usually between 8 and 13 years of age. This puts 13-year-old Reina, whom we discussed earlier, in the middle of what can only be described as a difficult time of life.

The process of puberty is controlled by a number of hormones. For boys, the most important of these hormones is testosterone. During puberty, boys' brains actually become less sensitive to stress. One reason is that their hormone changes are constant: the amount of testosterone produced is more or less the same from one day to another. Moreover, when boys do need to decompress, it is natural for them to run around outside, play sports, be physically active, and compete (or even fight) with one another.

For girls, life is different. As puberty ramps up, their brains are inundated with estrogen and progesterone, which — compared to boys — makes them feel and act differently in several important ways. First, until a girl's menstrual cycle becomes established, her estrogen and progesterone will fluctuate erratically. Even when her cycle finally becomes regular, a girl still lives within a continually changing hormonal environment. If a girl's body were to produce these hormones in the same amounts, day after day, it would not take long to adapt. However, this is not the case and, as a result, girls experience a roller-coaster effect that takes several years to settle down. During this time, girls tend to experience disconcerting changes — sometimes daily or even hourly — in how they perceive their feelings and their emotional needs.[16]

Teenage girls' stress hormones levels are higher than boys', making them significantly more sensitive to pain, rejection, and conflict.

Second, as estrogen and progesterone surge, they provide strong stimulation to the communication and emotional areas of the girl's brain that were established during fetal development. (See the discussion in Section 27.) To be sure, the mental circuits do stabilize, but it takes a few years. In the meantime, pubescent girls are much more sensitive to stress. Compared to boys, girls are more aware of what they are feeling and far more responsive to their emotions. They are also highly sensitive to emotional nuances, even when what they think they perceive is not necessarily true. As a result, girls' cortisone (stress hormone) levels are higher than boys', making them significantly more sensitive to pain, rejection, and conflict.

Is it any wonder why, at this age, so many girls are subject to emotional outbursts? ("I hate you, I hate you, I hate you — you're the worst parent in the whole world," followed by the slamming of the bedroom door.)

So how do pubescent girls relieve their daily stress? They do what comes naturally. Not only are their brains wired for communication, girls at this age are driven by hormones to connect, to feel, and to talk. And, whenever they do, their brain releases a surge of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and oxytocin. As we discussed earlier, dosing the pleasure center with dopamine makes the girls feel good. Oxytocin has a different effect. It creates a sense of intimacy: bonding, trust, and connectedness. The combination makes girls feel good while significantly lowering their stress levels.

How important is this feeling? Consider this quotation from the book The Female Brain[15], written by Louann Brizendine M.D., the director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco:

"We're not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It's a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm."

Is it any wonder why pubescent girls love to spend so many hours hanging out together and talking? Indeed, if they are to maintain good mental health, they need to talk a lot. Can you now see why, if they can't talk in person, girls will talk on the phone? And if they can't talk on the phone, they will text message as much as they can? And if they can't text or IM (instant message) each other, they will obsessively check in with Facebook and Myspace?

Let us now return to 13-year-old Reina, our text messaging goddess. Let us recall her comment: "I have like four close friends that I'm constantly texting. I don't really think there is a point. It's just fun to talk." By now, is in not becoming clear why Reina wants to text all day long? And why, although she doesn't realize it, there is a point.

At her age, Reina has a very strong need — not only socially, but biologically — to reach out and connect to other people. In her situation, the most convenient and satisfying way to meet this need is to talk with other girls her own age, girls who are in the same stage of life and understand her feelings. This is why, whenever she hangs out with her friends, telling stories, chatting, and gossiping, she feels so good. Not only is Reina stimulating the pleasure center of her brain in a way that makes her feel good and relieves her stress, she is, in a real sense, acting in harmony with her biology.

So what's wrong with that? Clearly, Reina is passing through a stage of life, indeed, a particularly confusing and difficult stage of life. Eventually things will settle down. If, right now, she wants to text message all day long and she is on a school break (and has a phone plan that allows unlimited texting), why is that a problem?

It is a problem for several reasons. First, Reina has important needs to meet. Within reason, she will be better off when she gets enough day-to-day communication to meet her needs. However, can texting really do the job?

I say no. I maintain that texting (and instant messaging, emailing, or even talking on the telephone) does not provide the type of social connections human beings need to thrive. It is my contention that none of these communication facilities — unparalleled in the history of mankind — will ever provide the type of social connections human beings really need. I further maintain that much of the awkward and irritating behavior people demonstrate when communicating in this way can be explained by the fact that they are fruitlessly looking for an outlet that technology cannot provide.

Like other basic characteristics, our need to communicate developed over hundreds of thousands of years as we evolved from our ancestors. Throughout this time, there was no such thing as communication at a distance. If two people wanted to communicate, they had to do so in person. In evolutionary terms, modern communication facilities — cell phones, email, television, radio, telegraphs, postal mail, newspapers, and even books — are recent inventions, far too new to have any effect on shaping our basic nature.

When you examine the quality of talking in person, it's easy to see that it is a much richer experience than anything that can happen using technology. When Reina texts her four best friends, all she can see is words. When she talks with a friend in person, she not only hears the words, she sees her friend's appearance, her body language and her gestures. She hears the nuances of her voice: the tone, the volume, and the rhythm. Moreover, she experiences a total environment: the location, the temperature, the ambient noise, the smells, and the presence or absence of other people.

We can now see why Reina's texting is never going to meet her biological needs: there is just too much missing. Still, we know that, if Reina is to be mentally healthy, she needs to talk to her friends a lot. Moreover, we also know that, to be effective, she needs to do it in person. So no matter how hard Reina tries, text messaging will never satisfy her deep, biological needs. Instead, the tiny surge of dopamine she gets every time she texts will induce her to try, repeatedly, to make herself feel good. No wonder she is addicted.

Addicted? If you think I am exaggerating, remember that Reina — and millions of boys and girls all over the world — repeat this same behavior as often as they can, day after day after day. Take a moment to ask yourself how people like Reina would feel if someone took away their cell phones? We'll talk about it in more detail later but, for now, I'll tell you: such people go through a serious, very uncomfortable period of withdrawal.

Unfortunately, people like Reina's father (who wrote the article about her)[1] still think the whole thing is cute. And yet an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry describes technology-mediated addictions as a common disorder, a compulsive- impulsive condition, often with serious consequences, that can be very difficult to treat.[17]

Consider a Nielsen study of 50,000 cell phone users across the U.S. In the second quarter of 2008, on the average, cell phone users sent and received 357 text messages per month: this was a 450 percent increase since 2006. Teenagers (ages 13-17) texted more than any other demographic group: their average was 1,742 texts per month (that is, 58/day).

As human beings, we need to talk to one another and — as much as possible — we need to do it in person. For young people like Reina, communication and bonding are particularly strong needs, an undeniable part of their biological nature. Indeed, many people are so thirsty for satisfying communication they will crawl across a desert towards a mirage — and when they find there's no water, they will drink the sand.

The truth is, however, people like Reina don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because, believe it or not, they just don't know the difference.

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A Link Between

The Island Syndrome
1. What Is the Island Syndrome?
2. What's in the News?
3. Difficult Questions
4. Why the Nature of Communication...
5. No Man Is an Island
6. Putting a Name to the Malaise
7. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
Living in the Bubble
8. What's in the News?
9. The Three Mandatory Machines
10. Life in the Bubble
11. Why We Keep On Keeping On
12. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
The Importance of the Brain's Biochemical Environment
13. What's in the News?
14. The Story of Dave
15. Importance of Neurotransmitters
16. The Stuff of Moods, Feelings and...
17. What Does Dave Need?
18. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
19. Introduction to Part II
20. The Island Syndrome
21. Excessive Text Messaging
22. Excessive Pornography Use
23. Understanding the Biology
24. Hormones and Neurotransmitters
25. The Pleasure Center
26. Too Much, Too Fast: Craving and...
27. The Female and Male Brains
28. Biology of Excessive Text Messaging
29. Biology of Excessive Pornography...
30. Conclusion: The Island Syndrome...
31. References