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Portrait of a Thumb Addict (by Paul W. Smith)

Thumb-Sucking-Monkey

Healthy people suck their thumbs.  It’s a proven scientific fact.  Thumb sucking benefits heart rhythm and breathing, while also regulating the muscles engaged in peristalsis of the digestive tract.  Surprisingly, thumb suckers become emotionally independent at an earlier age.  TS is definitely “nature” rather than “nurture”- many babies have been sucking for several months before even leaving the womb. 

In spite of all the benefits, it’s probably not a good idea to suck your thumb during a job interview or on a first date.  While there is some debate among psychologists over the best age to quit, most would agree that at some point during toddler-hood, thumb sucking stops aiding the child, and starts benefitting the orthodontist. 

Thumb sucking is the first addiction – the quintessential “if it feels good, do it” - an activity that eventually takes on a life of its own after serving its purpose.  Once the thumb is out of the mouth for good, other addictions will follow, addictions involving a substance (Diet Pepsi, alcohol, cocaine…) or perhaps an activity (shopping, gambling, sex…).  All start out beneficial and/or enjoyable and end up eroding quality of life.

Consider something as seemingly benign as information. Google the term infoholic and you will discover two things:  (1) that an infoholic is a person addicted to acquiring information, and (2) the sobering irony of what you just did. 

Since the term sugarholic was derived from the infamous alcoholic in 1965, we have obsessed over labeling various addictions using the –aholic appendage.  Whether your particular issue involves shopping, work, golf, chocolate or food there is a labelaholic somewhere ready to put a stamp on you.  ‘Aholism, aka addiction, is quite simple to recognize, unless of course the ‘aholic is you.  I chose the infoholic example because I happen to have a picture of someone who knows someone who is one. 

The drive to keep up with the latest information is not necessarily bad; like thumb sucking it’s a hard-wired survival instinct. It’s essential to know which berries are poisonous, where the wild boars hunt, and how to protect your cave.  It may seem like toddlers are always getting into everything just to annoy us, but they intuitively know that information about their world is of primal importance.  For as long as information gathering was beneficial, this was not a problem.  Then along came the smartphone. 

Speaking of smartphones, where is yours right now?  How does it make you feel when you are in the shower, and your phone signals a call or a message that you can’t get to.  How does your morning go if you arrive at work and realize that you left it at home?  If reading that paragraph caused a rise in your blood pressure, we are in this thing together. 

It’s easy to forget that the very first iPhone came out a mere eight years ago, and now just over half of Americans have some sort of equivalent.  81% of us try to dodge those blood pressure swings by remaining within arm’s reach of that phone during waking hours and 63% sleep with it nearby.  Even when we’re not talking, we spend three hours a day gazing at something on the screen.  As often happens, the technology has evolved so quickly that we haven’t thought about how it is sending our lives careening off into entirely unforeseen directions.

Ben Halpert - a man on a mission to keep kids safe online – summarized our predicament to the tune of Van Halen’s Right Now.  Of course you can find the video online.  The essential truth is this; the flood of information coming at us through our smartphones keeps our brains on constant alert, robbing us of the calm, uninterrupted time to daydream and innovate.  There really are WMD’s after all, and their full name is Wireless Mobile Devices.

Meanwhile, technology is unrelenting.  My new Apple Watch was supposed to free me from the drudgery of always checking my phone, but now it’s even harder to ignore.  An “intimate” tap on the wrist sounds wonderful, until it has reached the pace where it could be mistaken for my heartbeat.  Smart clothing is coming next; when my boxers warn me I have important email, I am definitely moving to Walden Pond

A cry for help may lead you to the NoPhone, a $12 hunk of plastic that looks like a smartphone but does nothing (batteries not included).  If you are like me and grew up in the “Pet Rock” era, this will sound familiar.  Those who used a “Binky” to wean their kid off the thumb already have the basic idea.

While technology has been busy shrinking the world, it has also spread the problems.  The Chinese, for example, not only have the world’s fastest supercomputers, they also appear to be ahead in awareness that Internet addiction is a serious societal problem.  Chinese doctors have classified infoholism as a clinical disorder; the recent PBS documentary “Web Junkie,” shows just how serious it has become.  Rehab centers are springing up, designed to persuade Chinese youth that the Matrix is only a movie, the real world isn’t fake, and there is more to life than a pocket-sized touchscreen. 

Thumbing the little screen while at a job interview or on a first date is ill advised, and doing so while driving can be fatal.  That sounds obvious, but when you are wired to gather information and your smartphone is pushing it to you, lighting up and dinging for attention, it’s not so simple.  Responding is both an easy task we love to check off, and an interesting distraction we crave. 

Experts agree that the most effective way to end this addiction is to replace it with a new, less toxic one.  While the “Binky” may be a short-term fix, supportive allies are a better answer. 

The best solution of all is the simplest.  Take your thumb out of your mouth, or off the keypad, and talk to someone.

PWSmith-Logo InvenTPM Logo

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

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