MAAD - The New Mental Disorder You and I should be Deeply Worried About.

A detrimental consequence of mobile media is Media Acquired Attention Deficit (MAAD), a non-infectious pandemic from CyberSpace.

Mobile devices can be a literal pain in the neck (‘Text Neck’, caused by bad posture while ‘texting’); and also a pain in the hand (‘BlackBerry Thumb’ soon to be renamed ‘iThumb’), from over-use of Opponens Pollicis, the thumb muscle that differentiates us from monkeys.

The modern era Information Age is also the Interruption Age: there are unavoidable neurological and social consequences of interruptions, such as disruption of mental, social and physical activities. While not psychotic, the MAAD simultaneously are connected to Cyberspace and partially disconnected from RealSpace. Somewhat alarmingly, mental distraction from RealSpace can last for 25 minutes after disengagement from CyberSpace.

Passive MAAD, the lack of attention people suffer in the presence of the MAAD, evokes responses that range from resigned acceptance to frustration, even anger. The combination of active and passive MAAD is a debilitating form of interruptus during social intercourse. MAAD kills the exchange of intimate and creative thoughts – we are ‘alone together’. It has recently been reported that 20% of young people use smart phones during sex ... not sure about seniors!

Cyber-connectedness can have serious physical consequences. Driving MAAD and its equally dangerous variant, Cycling MAAD, lead to an erratic course of the vehicle and an increased incidence of accidents (as much as 200-fold) and road rage.

Boris Johnson: Cycling MAAD in London ... Boris now wears a helmet.

Walking MAAD has similar effects on locomotion and it also decreases speed, causing minor accidents between pedestrians, pedestrians and static objects and more serious accidents involving moving vehicles. In some jurisdictions, pedestrians are banned from using mobile phones and mobile listening devices. Shopping MAAD is a variant of walking MAAD that can evoke violent retaliation (Retail Rage) from innocent, sane victims connected to the real world of the retail shopping isle.

MAAD causes presenteeism: present at work physically, but partially absent mentally. Multi-tasking is the claimed compensation of the Working MAAD. It’s a proven delusion: multi-taskers are frenetically busy, but perniciously underproductive. Neuroscience provides an explanation: as with distractions, changing tasks disrupts neural operations in the prefrontal neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function. Executive function is one’s ability to retain and synthesise information, to reflect on its meaning, to think creatively and to apply good judgment in making decisions ... it’s what we expect of business executives, after all. Repeated distractions and task-changing impair the deep thought required for executive function; executive dysfunction is increasingly prevalent amongst ‘knowledge workers’, including managers. An emerging conspiracy theory is that chronically MAAD politicians and economists have contributed to the persistent, widespread economic woes since 2008.

Switching tasks and distractions impair executive function (Source)

Henry Mintzberg, a Canadian Professor of Management Studies, is so concerned about Working MAAD that he’s developed a simple approach to quantifying the problem; he also recommended some interventions. Mintzberg reported that one senior manager spent 20 hours in a quiet week attending to emails. Intel estimated that unnecessary emails cost it One Billion Dollars in a single year. Employees’ voluntarily declared time on social network sites during work (probably grossly under-reported) was calculated to cause annual direct costs to UK companies of more than £1.3bn. The high cost of MAAD probably is less than the economic and social benefits of the enabling technology, but it is a difficult calculation.

Smart phones and i-tablets can enrich meetings, if used appropriately. Mostly, however, active media, even in silent or vibrate mode, distract participants and impair the quality of meetings. Asking MAAD people to switch off their mobile devices for the duration of a meeting frequently elicits rude retorts, boasts of efficient multi-tasking, reluctant compliance, or active non-compliance, e.g. peeking at or typing text messages, instead of participating in the RealSpace meeting.

A smart device is not a smart choice if you suffer from MAAD; it’s an Interruption Gadget. Speed and efficiency are the purported benefits of mobile media, yet, paradoxically, MAAD executives now seem to work longer hours and less productively; they have poorer quality, continuously interrupted leisure time and rest (which becomes neither leisure nor rest); and they experience disturbed social intercourse. They are reluctant to leave the device behind when they do away for a weekend with the family. The reason is that Chronic MAAD causes debilitating, continuous partial attention (CPA): continuous, partial contact with immediate surroundings. If deprived of ‘connectivity’, these addicts fidget and become irritable – it destroys the weekend of anticipated leisure. Perhaps endorphins are involved; maybe we should try Methadone for the MAAD – it would be an easy experiment.

More than five-hundred years ago, the printing press introduced massive disruption. However, society soon developed norms of appropriate behaviour that allowed it to enjoy the pervasive benefits of the disruptive technology. Modern society must confront the brutal facts: MAAD exists in acute and chronic forms and it has damaging consequences. Next, it should develop and implement appropriate interventions that optimise the benefits of the technology, while reducing personal, social and organisational damage.

Solutions include 1. Etiquette (AKA good manners) – unfortunately, the anti-Phubbing (phone – snubbing) campaign seems to have faded into oblivion; 2. Periods of abstinence and allocation of appropriate times for using mobile media in appropriate, immobile spaces (AKA self-discipline); 3. Better technical methods of reducing communication ‘noise’ (AKA filters and rules). Maybe we need advice on how to live with MAAD (MAAD support groups).

Hopefully, the MAAD pandemic is a temporary mental, behavioural and social aberration in the evolution of human beings.

Roger Stewart The author is a truant from clinical physiology and medical practice who assists senior executives with personal and business development and productivity ... and switches off his smart phone during his meetings with them!

Selected Readings

  1. Hemp, P. Death by Information Overload. Harvard Business Review. September 2009. Reprint 0909J

  2. Bonabeau, E. Decisions 2.0. The power of collective intelligence. MIT Sloan Management Review; Winter 2009: 45 – 52; Reprint 50211.

  3. Dean, D and Webb, C. Recovering from information overload. McKinsey Quarterly 2011; January.

  4. Multitaskers pay mental price.

  5. Mintzberg, H. and Todd, P. The offline executive. Strategy and Business. July, 16, 2012.

  6. Jenkins, S. Now everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation? The Guardian, 2012; April 26.


  8. Smart Phones during Sex Survey:

26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All