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Is Texting an Addiction? How Can We Stop the Urge to Text While Driving?

It’s possible that some of you may not be as concerned about the science behind texting, but I’ve taken an interest in it, especially as it pertains to texting while driving. We often hear stories about vehicle accidents involving cars or pedestrians, deaths and tragedies due to driver irresponsibility.

The reality is texting is an addiction. Let’s discuss some.

Is texting an addiction

What actually happens inside our brains when we text?

I’m going to get a little technical here, so bare with me. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, located in the front of our heads, is the nucleus of high-level decision making; the executive control that is critical to so many human endeavors. It is under constant assault from more primitive areas of our brains. Those parts of the brain alert us to acute opportunity or threat, the so-called “fight or flight response”.

Typically, a balance exists between these brain regions, our top-down attention networks that allow us to focus, and our bottom-up attention networks that can override focus or redirect us to more urgent stimuli.

Studies by neuroscientists demonstrate that this balance can become disorderly and chaotic in the digital age. When the phone rings or a text or email comes in, the sound can be urgent, triggering the primitive parts of our brain to react, almost reflexively. We scan the text and email messages, looking for something of value among the numerous insignificant messages.

This process is called “intermittent reinforcement”, which is a powerful draw that comes with the uncertainty of the reward. (For example, an important message in the midst of the spam.) This process can become addictive, like a narcotic. When the phone rings, it triggers a whole social network reward of sorts; our decision-making prefrontal cortex is hijacked, the reptile parts of our brain take over, and we start scanning the messages, almost reflexively. Then, we can no longer focus on the road… and we crash.

A Response from a Text-Related Tragedy

In the past I highlighted citizen heroes who took it upon themselves to educate the public about distracted driving. Others are tackling new safety innovations to keep drivers, passengers and innocent pedestrians safe. A great example is Scott Tibbitts, who “developed a system that uses a small black box, plugged in under a car’s steering column, to block incoming and outgoing texts and prevent phone calls from reaching the driver.” (Read the full story on the New York Times.)

Unfortunately for Tibbitts, his innovation began with a devastating event – his colleague was hit and killed by a teenager who was texting while driving. Out of tragedy, he created something that just may help save other lives.

Your Thoughts about Texting

Now you know what happens internally – inside our brains – when we text, and you know its risks. Ask yourself – is it true? Do you agree that texting while driving is dangerous… but do you do it anyway? I would guess the majority of us would say, yes. Maybe we all need the black box??

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