So say the Borg.

What I’ve been noticing over the course of my research is that people often argue with me about the copious and consistent research findings that texting in class decreases their grades, that having a laptop on in class leads to distracting off-task surfing 2/3 of the time (and that that bothers your fellow students even more than it distracts you), and that multitasking most cognitive tasks is impossible which is why we fail to perceive, learn, remember and perform when we try to do it.

Freud, and his daughter, Anna Freud, described the defense mechanisms used by the ego to protect itself from anxiety and threats to its self-esteem. Resistance, denial, minimizing, projection, repression, rationalization, are all unconscious ways the ego protects itself from unpleasant memories, thoughts or feelings. They are unconscious, since if you knew you were using them they wouldn’t really work as well.

And people seem especially resistant to the idea that these activities, such as social media or gaming, are a behavioural addiction that can have serious negative consequences for learning and performance, at school, work, in your relationships, while driving, and etc.

As a therapist, this reminds me of the tremendous resistance and denial addictions counsellors face from people with substance addictions, or behavioural addictions like gambling. Would we resist admitting we have the flu? Well, yes, some people resist admitting even that. But I believe it is more common for people to resist acknowledging mental health challenges than physical illnesses (which in some societies and genders might be a result of or socially accepted manifestations of mental health challenges. But I digress).

Take distracted driving as an example. The research on the dangers of that has been clear for a decade. So I review that research in every course. These days, few would argue that drinking and driving is dangerous. Yet students will argue with me in every course that somehow, they can talk or text while driving even if others can’t. I ask them what car they drive so I can avoid them in the parking lot.

Some reasons why people might resist the clear and present research evidence and indulge in the clear and present danger of distracted driving?

  • Denial or minimizing or rationalizing the activity or the harm that might result:
    • “Those stats are exaggerated.”  “I rarely talk and drive on the phone”. “It’s just the same as driving with a passenger”. “I do it all the time and I’ve never had an accident.”
    • “I’m such a good driver I can drive and talk on the phone even if others can’t.”
  • Repression: “Forgetting” (repressing) the near-accidents (or actual accidents) that have resulted from your distracted driving.
  • Rationalization: “I had to read the text (in class or while driving) – it could have been my boss/mother/offspring or an emergency.”
    • Generation Gap: Old fogies are resisting the tech just because it is change and not the way things used to be when they grew up. They need to accept distracted driving is the way of things in the 21st century.
    • Social theory: Theory of adaptation to technological change. This research just reflects the resistance previous generations people have to the new.
  • Illusion of special ability and invulnerability: A self-protective belief that since the younger generations have been using mobile tech since childhood, they are able to multitask when older generations can’t, so the research doesn’t apply to them. “It won’t happen to me” beliefs.

Why would we need to resist and defend ourselves again the research evidence? Distracted drivers, gamers, in-class texters might resist the designation of behavioural addiction for emotional and defensive reasons.

Shame and self-blame: In any kind of problematic behaviour, once the person admits to themselves that the reason for their failures and difficulties in social relationships is their own behaviour, the challenge to their self-esteem causes shame, self blame and depression and anxiety – unpleasant feelings we tend to resist and repress so we can get up in the morning.

Resistance to losing the coping mechanism the tech provides: the gaming and texting provides us a way to manage negative feelings, to escape from boring or uncomfortable situations or feelings. We need coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and distress of everyday, and we use our tech so often because it works to help us cope. We wouldn’t want to lose that if we admit to ourselves our use has become problematic.

Resistance to losing the enjoyable social activity: It’s fun, and we want to continue to have fun. People need leisure hours and play.

Loss of self-determination and control: This would be the “You can’t tell me what to do” (You aren’t the boss of me) resistance to being told we should reduce a maladaptive behaviour. (Ironically, we would then be defending what we see as a “choice” to do a behaviour we actually feel compelled to do, even though it leads to negative consequences for one’s life. Being enslaved to such an activity is the very definition of loss of control.)

Identity: In the case of gaming, a gamer identity may be so fundamental to the person that a loss of gaming would be a loss of their identity.

Cultural/social norms: Everyone does it in the modern world. It is simply the way the world is today and I wouldn’t want to be the only person who doesn’t game/text/have a social media presence. Or my friends and family expect me to reply to an email or text as soon as possible – it is only polite.