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Break my mind

Break my mind

By Bill Stork, DVM

Several years ago I scored a date with a lovely woman I met on We arranged an evening on the Terrace at the Edgewater Hotel in Madison. A Mumford and Sons sound-alike from the driftless, Them Coulee Boys were down from Eau Claire laying down electric folk and Americana in flawless three-part harmony. The crowd was a mellow smattering - crunchy to eclectic. A lazy July breeze rippled Lake Mendota against the breakwater below. I spotted my date from the balcony, the same pose she featured on her profile pictures. I drove my work truck to first dates. I didn’t want to seem ostentatious in my ‘83 Chevy Trailblazer, and if she was into John Tesh or hair bands, I could fabricate a cow-in-dystocia emergency and make a run for the Dodge. The downside, my mobile veterinary hospital is twenty-two feet long. There are about three spots on The Isthmus where it will fit. So, I walk, which is never a bad thing. There’s always something to see in Madison.

My route took me down State Street, the six blocks most emblematic of the city, surrounded by reality. The EDM music vibrating the walls of State Street Brats was deafening from twenty-feet. In front a line had formed. Half-way to the door a group of six young-men gathered in a semicircle. Slouching and leaning, with their heads buried on their devices, the only thing moving was their thumbs, furiously swiping, never long enough to read a word.

For six minutes, no one spoke.

Facebook’s first Mission Statement: Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

Without argument, social media has its purpose.

Wes Coan was our next-door neighbor. He was the high-school guy who let the fifth-grade kid hang out in the garage and rode me around the back yard in his Volkswagen dune buggy. He helped me build my first bicycle from parts out back. When his father died in a grain-dust explosion, my dad took him fishing with us and helped keep him between the lines. Before he moved to Minnesota forty years ago, Wes handed me a custom-made fishing rod and nodded to my dad. My name was monogrammed just above the grip. Last year, Sheila and I took a Saturday night and drove to Winona to see a modern-day bluesman from Duluth named Charlie Parr, in a dive bar. We looked Wes up on Facebook.

Social media helps connect people passionate about everything from Husky dogs to Steampunk. Folks can sell lawnmowers, custom coffee cups, and horse hay. Brands have been made in a minute on YouTube.

“Anything in extremes is bad.” It was one of my dad’s favorite idioms, thirty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. As I write this piece, the World Health Organization has just declared the Coronavirus a global health crisis. I posit the intra-cellular pathogen will cause a fraction as much havoc as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Just ask eighty-eight-year-old World War II veteran Anthony Lenti. After months of being bullied on Facebook, his granddaughter used one of grandpa’s guns to end her pain.

Chamath Palihapitiya (which I learned to spell, and pronounce) was the vice-president of user growth before he left Facebook in 2011. He confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he felt tremendous guilt for his work on creating tools that are “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

“I can’t control them,” Palihapitiya said of his former employer. “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.”

Ex-Facebook President Sean Parker went further, “the site is designed to exploit human vulnerability.”

The devastation of distraction.

It was my son’s senior year of high school. I was making supper, Calvin was doing homework in the sun room. Between adding the bread crumbs, tomato sauce, and eggs to the meatloaf, I spot checked him.

He pulled out and swiped six times in forty minutes. Nine-times-an-hour.

We had the Mattel Classic Football game in the seventies. It had six buttons that controlled a red dot up-down-forward. The simplest smart phone has a television, movie theater, post office, library, and an encyclopedia. You can access trashy tabloid and porn, instantly. (I‘ve heard)

Thousands of students at three universities in the United States and in Europe were taught a curriculum. At mid-term and final exams, they were divided into groups. One was allowed to have their devices on their desks, turned off. A second group was required to stow them in their bag, and turned off. A third was not allowed to have them on the premise. Scores consistently declined according to proximity of their phones.

The students with the sleeping distraction on their desk scored a full-letter-grade lower.

In a separate study, researchers found that students who were not allowed to have their devices on their person during lectures also scored a freakin’ letter-grade higher, at test time.

In yet another experiment, researchers found that people asked to perform complicated tasks retained less information and performed poorer, in the presence of smart phones and devices, even if they were not their own smart phones.

The sound of pings and ring tones and the detection of vibration make subjects blood-pressure and heart rate rise, creates distractions, and increases the likelihood of errors.

When asked if they felt the presence of their devices was a distraction the test subjects responded, nearly universally, that they were not.

A young couple was concerned about their four-year-old tabby cat named Mickey. He’d been straining to urinate, and his urine looked like a Merlot that’d sat at the bottom of the glass all weekend. It was his third visit for the problem. As I explained the change in medications, how to palpate his abdomen, and the specific signs to look for, Mr. Owner serviced his smart phone six separate times.

Apple expects iPhone-users to consult their electronic pacifiers eighty times per day. That’s four-and-a-half times, per waking hour. Furthermore, studies have shown that thirty-percent of young people wake in the middle of the night to check their phone.

In 2017 it was reported that a whopping 96% of UK residents between the ages of 16-34 owned a smartphone of some kind, and the typical user touches their smartphone 2,617 times every single day.

Michelle Powers was in with her Red Doberman, Ruby. Michelle is a fourth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, where devices are not allowed during the school day. She shared the research of a colleague who taught 8th grade. She added the social-media feeds of her students for one period.

In one hour, during the school day, twenty-eight students received in excess of six-thousand social-media feeds.

Pause to absorb.

Gloria Marks is a professor of Informatics at The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science at The University of California - Irvine. She is interested in the interaction of people and technology. In her research, Dr. Marks found it takes an average of twenty three minutes and fifteen seconds to return to the original task, after a single interruption. There are nuances. A German study found it takes less time to recover from an on-topic distraction, but her findings have been substantiated in multiple studies.

We all sat down for the meatloaf. In an uber-constructive tone, I told Calvin I’d been watching him study. I shared these numbers with him, Good-God, man, can you imagine if you also prepared for the test-minus your phone? He was so excited he could hardly eat. “Damn dad, that is awesome, that’s like a free letter grade-or more. I can just hear the chancellor reading my name at graduation, ‘Calvin Conrad Stork, magna cum laude.’ That could easily lead to a prime internship and land me a great job. I’ll be able to pay back every nickel you helped with my tuition, plus interest. I’ll be able to form my own charity by my twenty-fifth birthday.”

Yeah, right. Calvin was seventeen at the time. He grunted, “That’s cool.”

Kids are experiencing separation anxiety. Not from their parents, twin sister Kate, or their Golden Retriever, but from their thousand-dollar pacifiers.

Schools that ban the use of connected devices found performance on standardized tests rise across all academic groups, with weaker students benefitting the most. In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence of the erosive effects of devices in the classroom, when teachers do not allow them, they have to manage against the effect of separation anxiety. Teachers have resorted to putting the phones in clear-plastic belts they wear around their waist, or locked plastic boxes. The kids can see their phone, even if they can’t access. Others have banks of pockets decorated with names and numbers and equipped with a charging station. Students know where they are, even if they can’t have them.

Some districts have chosen to incentivize students who refrain, like a Labrador pup who sits-and-stays for a rabbit-flavored Zuke treat. There are apps that track the number of touches or logins a user registers over a period of time. Students are being rewarded for not touching their phones with everything from Starbucks gift cards to extra-credit on tests and study-hall time.

My dad would have three words, “because I said so.”

One article points out the benefit of smart phones. They are such powerful research tools, and there is so much information at their fingertips, why not let student use them? Not to mention, most students already have them. School districts can save money by not having to provide laptops.

Most kids have them. Some do not.

Research says that easy information is anything but a benefit.

The Google effect…

In a 2011 study subjects were given statements to type into a computer. Half were told their responses would be saved, the other that the sentences would be instantly erased. When asked later to repeat as many lines as possible, those who thought they’d be erased recalled twice as many statements. The ease of access - knowing we can simply Google it - has a profound effect on the energy our brain puts forth to recall, remember, and own.

Psychologists have demonstrated that we can’t tell the difference: whether we know it, or Googled it.

That, is a big, frickin’ problem.

“Data, is memory without history,” the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick once wrote. Her observation points to the problem with allowing smartphones to commandeer our brains. When we constrict our capacity for reasoning and recall or transfer those skills to a gadget, we sacrifice our ability to turn information into knowledge. We get the data, but lose the meaning. Upgrading our gadgets won’t solve the problem. We need to give our minds more room to think. And that means putting some distance between ourselves and our phones.

Doug Fritsch was in with his cat Mystic, who has chronic Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, and a bad attitude. Doug is a retired history teacher. I had just cracked the cover on the epic WWI novel Ghost Soldiers. There’s only so much we can do with Mystic without being shredded; the balance of the thirty-minute appointment was a lecture on all that took place leading up to the events written in the book.

Just before graduation, Beth Denzin was in with Benny, who also has FURTD. She had been charged with writing the A.P. Calculus exam, “Dr. Stork, I’m so nervous, I want them to do well.”

Teachers love to teach. Not all teachers are Mr. Fritsch and Mrs. Denzin.

Four years after the sun-room homework experiment, my son is about to graduate from UW Madison. We were recounting his experience in school over steak burritos at Chipotle, “I had a teacher who was so awesome I got up for an eight-o’clock class, and sat in the front row. I had other classes where I bought the book and never went.”

Ryan Haack and I were wringing our hands by the LB White heater hanging in the vestibule of his dairy barn. I love to throw open-ended questions at Ryan. He thinks a lot, reads a lot, and milks a hundred-fifty cows twice every day. I lobbed the notion of online vs in-person learning at him, “I think there’s tremendous value in mis-information. It teaches us to be active, independent, and critical-consumers. It helps us sort fact from fiction or opinion.” We’ve all had that teacher who inspired us, but a motivated student can’t be deterred.

In an 1892 lecture, pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James proclaimed, “The art of remembering, is the art of thinking.” It is not until we encode information into our organic memory can we use it to weave the intricate associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical conceptual thinking. No matter how much information surrounds us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.

The social effect...

The platforms that purport to keep people connected, may be accomplishing quite the opposite.

Social Scientist Jean Twenge has been studying generational differences for twenty-five years. “Kids these days.” Today’s youth is far more likely to be in their home, connected to the world around them by social-media platforms on Wi-Fi. Yet they report feeling isolated and unhappy.

From 2000 to 2015 Twenge found that young people became forty-percent less likely to get together on a regular basis.

A group of researchers at University of Arizona sought to answer the chicken or the egg dilemma: Does obsessive use of social media lead to depression, or do those with depressive tendencies turn to social media? In an about-to-be published paper looking at over three-hundred older adolescents, they found that the obsessive use of devices is an extremely accurate predictor of future depression and anxiety.

My friend Ned took chocolate-covered strawberries and carnations to his mother-in-law on her first Valentine’s Day alone. They had been talking for a half-hour when his phone pinged. Janet asked, “Aren’t you going to answer that?”

“No, Janet, I’m here to talk to you.”

Similar to studies on academics and performance, researchers put subjects together and asked them to talk about intense interpersonal topics. You guessed it, half in the presence of their devices, half without. Afterwards participants were asked to score their partners on affinity, empathy, and trust. It was found the presence of smart phones dramatically diminished partners’ ability to develop closeness, trust, and understanding.

Yet, some psychologists are prescribing more social media time for kids suffering from anxiety, depression, and separation.

My mechanic Steve would no more try and tell me how to sedate and suture his German Short-Haired Pointer after resource guarding war III, than I would tell him how to swap out the fuel injectors in my truck. It is not my nature to question expertise, but, seriously?

In a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal, psychologists are coaching kids suffering from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem on how to construct posts in order to garner likes and shares, and therefore bolster their self-confidence.

They’re instructed to block and ignore negative responses to their posts. Whatever happened to facing our detractors head-on? If you’re looking for self-esteem; build something, fix something, or help someone.

To expect the world to treat you fairly and kindly is akin to expecting the bull not to stampede because you’re vegan.

Our friends Stan and Patricia have a Mardi Gras Party that’s like a Lake Mills Reunion. I was talking to Eli Wedel. Eli is one impressive young man. He’s a fabulously skilled photographer, an active Rotarian, and has a head for marketing. He’s just purchased a restaurant in town. I was keenly interested in his plans for the space. He also started a Rotary event that benefitted local drug-free initiatives and is looking to approach local businesses to get marketing materials for alcohol and tobacco off the ground, so they are no longer in the direct line-of-sight of kindergarteners. He may have to take a step back from photography.

My friend John always said, “The more pictures you take, the less you see.” I shared an exchange from earlier in the week to get Eli’s take.

Southern Wisconsin was a postcard. Mid-January, she was tucked under a solid foot-and-a-half snow pack which sublimated into a haze over the drumlins and valleys in the blinding mid-day sun and twenty-five Fahrenheit. When the sun set and the mercury in the Mail Pouch thermometer dropped below the tin, dime-size crystals of hoarfrost lit and balanced on every tree branch, farm gate, and fence wire. When the sun rose at six-thirty Thursday morning, she was diffracted into magenta, purple, and gold and thrown into a towering flame-red spire straight to the heavens over County Road B.

The first appointment was in with her four-month old Golden Retriever. Riley was healthy and sweet. After a hundred kisses and treats, I gave a rabies vaccine and the spay speech. I could not help but ask if she’d seen the sunrise. I described the seminal event as best I could, to which she responded, “Wow, I hope someone posts that!”

Eli nodded, “Oh yeah, I’ve taken a million pictures, and haven’t seen a thing.”

When we were in grade school John Paul Snyder was good in baseball, basketball, and football. He had a cool pair of brown-suede high top, shoes, with pockets, and all the cute girls hung around him. I played tenor sax in the jazz band. I wanted to be like JP.

Now, there are influencers.

It has come to my attention that in a world that begs for tradesmen, truckers, and physicians, there are folks whose primary pursuit is to post on social media. The goal is to accumulate enough followers to court advertising dollars from sponsors. The Dolan Twins just purchased a 2.75 million dollar house with over three acres in the hills of California, “Perfect for filming their antics to be posted on YouTube.” As close as I can tell, partying in exotic locations, lounging in over-sized chairs, skateboarding in the desert, and posing for butt shots appears more marketable than actually producing anything or performing a service.

Suffering from burnout, twenty-year-old Grayson and Ethan Dolan chose to step away from the platform they’ve posted to for the last five years, and has netted them millions.

“We have a job where you can’t just take off, because there’s the fear of becoming irrelevant,” Grayson Dolan said. “I can’t even go home to see my mom.”

To become irrelevant?

A number of influencers build a brand and grow it into a career in design, fashion, and often benefit others. That’s legit. Not to mention, young boys have been fantasizing forever.

The only thing I ever attempted to draw was a 1975 Ford Gran Torino with a white vector stripe down both sides. I’m betting there were a fair number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers doled out from behind the curtain as a result of Farrah Fawcett in a red one-piece. Seems like splittin’ hairs to suggest The Dolan Twins have captivated any more fancy than Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels.

The difference is that Bo, Luke, and Daisy Duke, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels were on TV, in our living room, an hour-a-week.

Thanks to social media platforms, influencers are in our pockets, on our laps, and worse yet, in our minds, hundreds of times every day. They are filmed on the beach, on stage, in the mountains, and partying in mansions. The daughter of a truck-driver and a nurse living in the three-bedroom Ranch in Cleveland, feels inferior.

Just when you thought there was no more damage to be done, then came Sad Fishing.

According to social-media data mining firm Captiv8, (which is recognized by spell check by the way) when influencers on social-media share their frustrations and vulnerabilities… they see a multi-fold bump in likes and views. The practice is called Sad Fishing.

Following suit, the socially-challenged kid in Watertown, Wisconsin, shares her anxiety and depression on Facebook and she gets bullied, or becomes a target for online predators offering to “listen.”

Everyone has done it. The day after Sharon Smith dumped me in fifth grade I walked slow, scuffed my feet, and mumbled when I got to school, hoping my friends would ask how I was doing.

So, Bill, what’s your point?

There was a television commercial set in sepia-tone and narrow muted light. A young towheaded boy sat at the end of the breakfast table. He anxiously looked towards his mom, “Hey, Mom, I was thinking after school maybe we could bake some brownies!” Mom didn’t hear, she was thumbing at her device. He turned to his dad, “Hey, Dad, how’s about this weekend we go fishin’, maybe play some ball!” Dad mumbled, “Just a minute kid,” his head buried in his iPhone.

I shared an exchange with my friend Scott. A client was hoping her son’s new girlfriend might, “Beat a little Christianity into him.” In the next phrase she expressed her frustration with the “idiots at the mall.’’ Twenty-years the trial attorney, Scott’s response was instant, “Hick, we’re all full of contradictions.”

In high school, selling night crawlers and minnows at Ye Olde Tackle Box, faced with the old-fashioned mechanical cash register with rows of buttons and the plastic bar on the side, I could add a half-dozen items and figure tax, in my head. Now, I have a calculator on my iPhone. I have four Facebook accounts, and demonstrated The Google Effect a half-dozen times cut-and-pasting passages into this article.

It is best to rise from life, as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.

All things in moderation.

Watch the sun rise. Listen to a friend. Ditch the device.

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