Connectivity Overdrive?

Business Professor Studies How People Are Relating to Technology

An electronic beep sounds and heads turn — to check cell phones. Before the play, the game, the class or a business meeting begins, people busily read and send text messages, check Facebook or surf the Web.

In the office, in restaurants, in church and, yes, even rest rooms, many appear to be focused on their mobile devices, eager to respond at a moment's notice, whether it interrupts a dinner date, a business meeting or family function.

When does it become too much?

Ofir Turel on the stairs in the lobby of Mihaylo Hall.Caption: Ofir Turel, professor of information systems and decision sciences. Photo by Karen Tapia Download Photo

“On one hand, mobile email helps employees connect with their organizations and increase productivity, and benefits resulting from mobile email usage are unarguable,” says Ofir Turel, professor of information systems and decision sciences in Cal State Fullerton's Mihaylo College of Business and Economics.

“On the other hand, some individuals may overuse mobile email, and even become heavily psychologically dependent on its use, that is, addicted.”

According to Turel, there are signs that for some people, such behaviors rise to the level of addiction.

What Turel calls mobile email addiction involves “excessive interaction with both a mobile technology and the content under conditions of maladaptive psychological dependency.” He contends that such an addiction can be manifested several ways — from the domination of an individual’s thoughts and behaviors to an inability to control or quit such behavior.

Technology addiction and its consequences, in the workplace and as quality of life, are the focus of ongoing studies by the professor, who received a 2011 Mission and Goals Initiative grant from the university to further his research.

In a 2010 survey Turel conducted with colleagues, the researchers examined this phenomenon and its consequences among 240 mobile email users. While no formal mechanisms exist to classify a person as a mobile email addict, Turel and his colleagues determined that 6.2 percent of survey respondants exhibited the same complex of symptoms associated with gambling, substance abuse and others behaviors more commonly described as addictive. 

“Taken together, these results demonstrate that mobile email addiction may be a fairly common phenomenon,” says Turel, leading to negative organizational consequences such as job turnover and familial consequences such as marital discord and conflict.

Turel is now turning to physiological aspects and using the university grant to to study the neurobehavioral pathways through which the decision-making of highly addicted individuals is impaired. He also is seeking external funding to further advance our understanding of these neurobehavioral mechanisms.

“Under stress, such mechanisms can impair decision-making, causing the individual to focus only on short-term gains,” says Turel, adding that similar behaviors are found in other technology contexts, such as online gaming and Facebook usage. “Several countries, such as China, consider this a public health issue. The U.S.  medical community tends to view mobile email usage in the context of mental disorders, like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Resolving this difference in perspective hangs on research efforts of people like Ofir Turel and his colleagues.

Top of Story