Solana Beach resident addresses growing problem in new book ‘iDisorder’
By Kathy Day
Larry Rosen admits he’s a geek — and that he’s obsessed with technology. So, he says, he’s a perfect person to write a book about how technology affects our daily lives.
His latest, “iDisorder,” offer tips on how to keep using those iPads, smart phones, computers and any of the other latest “toys” without letting them take over your life.
The Solana Beach resident has been teaching at Cal State Dominguez Hills for 37 years. He currently teaches the Global Impact of Technology, a psychology class, two days a week to classes of 350 to 500 students in the campus theater and wouldn’t change the commute or the size of his classes for anything, he said.
“I will never retire. I love teaching … I can clip on a microphone and be a showman.”
He majored in math at UCLA but decided two and a half years in that he didn’t want to be a math major. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology at UCSD.
It’s easy to picture him in front of his students, an easygoing style and sense of humor. Wearing his Jon Stewart T-shirt, he says one of his goals is to get on the “Daily Show” — really, he says. Perhaps to make a point that the TV star might pick up on, he adds, “There’s a ‘Daily Show’ effect — teenagers these days are getting their news from Jon Stewart.”
He’s studied that effect, and lots of others. Including the phenomenon he calls iDisorder: “Changes to your brain’s ability to process information and your ability to relate to the world due to your daily use of media and technology resulting in signs and symptoms of psychological disorders — such as stress, sleeplessness, and a compulsive need to check in with all of your technology.”
He started the book with a scene in a movie theater: At the last second everyone turns “off” their cell phones. Then, in the middle, you see people surreptitiously looking to see what they’ve missed. At the end, everyone turns their phones back on.
Kind of like when the plane lands on the runway, he added.
As he sat in the living room of the blufftop condominium he shares with his girlfriend, Vicki, and his cat, Ashley, he furtively glanced at his iPhone from time to time, resisting the urge to check his latest updates.
Later, as the conversation shifted gears, he looked and found only 18 emails in the 45 or so minutes that had passed.
And he laughed when talking about forgetting which pocket his phone was in — and about people who accidently leave for work without them.
“Research shows most people will drive home to get it,” he said. “It’s an incredible compulsion.”
He calls the newest book an update of his first, “TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work @Home @Play.” In between, he’s written a book for teachers to help them understand how the iGeneration learns and one for parents to help them grasp how their children use the Internet. He also writes for The National Psychologist and blogs for Psychology Today.
Rosen, 62, first became interested in computers as a little boy, noting that when his parents — mom taught high school math and dad was an accountant — took him to a college day at UCLA, he went directly to the computer lab and hung out there.
“I write about stuff because it’s about me — covertly or overtly,” he said. “I sleep with my phone next to me and play Words with Friends — that’s becoming compulsive.”
For those like him who can’t “drop their technology,” he said it’s important to develop strategies to deal with the effects of being constantly connected.
“We are all overloading in a variety of ways, which is not our fault,” he said. “It’s not about giving up your iPhone for Lent. It’s about moderation in smart ways.”
His writing is based on extensive research. He’s unusual among state university professors, he noted, in that he runs a lab on campus, utilizing undergrads as researchers. Currently there’s a team of four faculty members and about 10 students.
“I have a low boredom threshold,” he said with a chuckle. “We usually have five to 10 projects going on and can start a new one any time.
They’ve looked at how Facebook is used, texting and are now studying sleep disorders.
He said it seems that using your cell phone an hour before you go to sleep has the biggest impact.
“It doesn’t matter the content, it’s the phone,” he said, adding that laptops and tablets don’t seem to have the same impact. He said that it’s important to understand how the brain works when considering the impacts of technology.
“If we peered inside and saw the switching going on — ding, it’s an email, what was that — the brain is being constantly bombarded,” he said. “We have to learn how to reset the brain.”
With a background in parent education and child and adolescent development, he travels extensively, giving lectures around the world — most recently in Mumbai, India, and is headed for Washington, D.C., in May and Australia in June.
While his book offers a number of ways to tackle the problem, he suggested a couple of simple solutions for when your brain gets overloaded:
• Take a 15-minute break. Walk outside — and don’t take the phone. (Easy for him to say, since his condo overlooks the Pacific.)
• Look at a nature book — not at nature photos online.
• Take an e-waiting period. We jot things down electronically without thinking. Let it rest before you post to Facebook or send the e-mail, so your brain can calm down and you can take a look at what you wrote in a different light.
• Take a warm bath, play an instrument or listen to music — but only “beautiful” music.” Look at art you consider pretty.
• Have a conversation with someone else.
For teachers and others in group settings — or even at dinner — where constant use of cell phones gets in the way of being focused, he recommends what he calls “tech breaks.”
Everyone turns their phones face down and puts them on silent. Then after a certain period – say 15 or 18 minutes of lecture — everyone gets one minute to check their phone. Teachers, he added, can lengthen the time to 30 minutes and can use the breaks as a reward by allowing two minutes or selecting a student to be the one who monitors when the breaks are given.
The twice-divorced father of four calls himself “a parent trainer at heart” and notes that it’s important to set clear behavioral objectives and reinforce the lessons.
In his own life, he gets his personal “tech breaks” around Solana Beach, where he also lived while attending UCSD. He loves the casual, friendly feeling of his neighborhood and being able to walk to the Belly Up to hear a concert. But, being a bit of a night owl, he doesn’t like that it’s tough to find a place to grab a late dinner nearby.
He has found other uses for technology – combining it with old rock ‘n’ roll LPs to make art works with bits and pieces of outdated computers and phones.
But he uses the current “toys” to stay in touch with his “four amazing, successful kids.”
With the older ones — Adam, 37, and Arielle, 34 — he most often talks on the phone. With Christopher, 24, technology is a lifeline in a special way. Now living in New Jersey and working with Johnson & Johnson, Christopher is deaf so instant messaging has been a great way to communicate, although they also use a phone “translation” service.
And with his youngest, Kaylee, a senior at Yale, it’s text messaging that keeps them connected.
He blames Steve Jobs for a lot of the stress that comes with constantly being tied to technology. “Darn him,” he said. “He made some of the best technology and made it all so compelling.”
Acknowledging that he’s “hooked up” about 18 hours a day, he said, “I understand what it does to me, but I’m not giving it up.”
‘iDisorder’ is available at Barnes & Noble in stores, online: Amazon.com in hardcover or ebook. Learn more about Dr. Rosen at