Burnout in the Medical Profession Part 3: The Digital Era and Media Explosion

Burnout in the Medical Profession Part 3: The Digital Era and Media Explosion

Understanding the Phenomena of Burnout in the Medical Profession Series
Part 3: The Digital Era and Media Explosion

Technological advancements are commonly viewed as leading to increased productivity. Numerous studies document the benefits of technology on productivity in the workplace and on human capital accumulation. There are, however, potential drawbacks to new technologies, as they may provide distractions and as well as reducing productivity. Mobile phones can be a source of great disruption in workplaces and classrooms, as they provide individuals with access to texting, games, social media and the Internet. Given these features, mobile phones have the potential to reduce the attention students pay to classes and can therefore be detrimental to learning.

Most people check their phone within 15 minutes of waking up and given that an office worker or doctor may get up to 100 emails per day, you have a recipe for cognitive overload.  Throughout medical school and even during hospital rounds, people are routinely on their phones, sometimes for good reason, and sometimes just because they want to detach from where they are. It’s very easy to get distracted with infinite sources of notifications on all our tech devices — anything from texts and emails to social media feeds and a variety of other things. I still think the devices are very useful and can increase efficiency and be of great service in medical situations where you just need to look something up quickly, but I will admit there is a lot of people who use them for less justifiable reasons.

On the other hand, it is a fact that many of the younger generations derive a place in the social hierarchy by comparing themselves to other people on Instagram or Facebook are the most at risk. It’s shockingly common how these misconceptions (social status derivation through social media exposure) have transplanted what historically issues of hierarchy as a student was a far more personal and manageable problem. Consequently, I think this whole experiment is manifesting itself as a key culprit of the dramatic increase of burnout and mental health problems in the younger generations over the past 20 years. Young people are replacing meaningful human interactions with technology and I am not sure of its effect on communicative and social skills.

When talking with students, nieces and nephews, teenagers and young adults of my personal friends, it generally appears that the students are managing to keep up with the workload until midterm exams (usually two weeks in mid-late October, and then mid February in the second semester) and then again at finals in December and April. These two periods of final examinations in each semester seem to be when burnout is discussed most. It may be that the stress is high because of the importance of these exams and complementary to weekly assignments, papers, part-time jobs and extra-curricular activities. For some students, it feels like they are operating at maximum capacity before the exam period and can’t seem to keep up once exams hit. However, as I personally did in my schooling time, albeit a different time, the final exams are not a new phenomena, and predictably occur at the end of the term. I do think there is an element of this that is unavoidable and ultimately is a lesson in prioritization and time management, whatever sometimes the demands placed on students appear unrealistic.

The “digital era” and social media is quite a loaded topic, and it seems kind of hard to separate the positives from the negatives. Most of the courses now are attached to an online forum where most assignments and readings and lecture slides are uploaded. In this respect, social media has made it far easier to stay up to date and organized with course material, and students have a constant line of communication with professors and teaching assistants. Students also have immediate access to journals, papers, and info published by countless other universities. Social media also has made it far easier to contact classmates and discuss material outside of class, even if you don’t know these classmates personally. Most extracurricular activities and clubs will also use some form of social media for communication and organization.  Nearly every aspects of our life have some digital component and making it increasingly difficult to disconnect. With regard to friend’s pressure, students definitely feel the need to remain connected 24 hours a day and want to cultivate a persona on their social media accounts. They use social media to “brand” themselves a certain way, and I think a lot of people end up comparing their lives to these unrealistic online personas of friends, acquaintances and others. Whether or not this has a direct link to burnout is a controversial topic.

One of my nephews tells me that students today have no points of reference, having been born as millennial in the digital era. Digital, media and all its complexity is the only life they know but at the same time, they feel lost as what else can they refer too. It leads some students according to a student friend to extreme/outside/off the map/ excessive lifestyle, such as guru mentoring, extreme sports, drugs, isolation, unhealthy lifestyle experience as yoga, meditation, exercise, lifestyle coaching and so on, all of these efforts in trying to find a happy medium.

The research of Professor Sherry Turkle (MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society) reveals how the use of technological devices causes the periodic mental and emotional removal from face-to-face interactions, the sacrifice of deep and meaningful conversations and a reduced capacity for self-reflection and solitude, ultimately increasing vulnerability to loneliness and isolation. As deep intellectual discourse is the currency of collaboration, research innovation, and knowledge generation central to graduate education, Professor Turkle’s comments on the creation of sacred times and spaces for deep thought, active listening, and face-to-face interactions warrant consideration. Turkle also cited a Pew study that showed 89 percent of Americans pulled out their phone during a conversation, and then 82 percent, after reflection, said it actually diminished the on-going conversation. A different study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology found a 40 percent decline in people’s empathy, with most of the decline in the last 10 years. Turkle suggested it had to do with the presence of phones and other devices.

A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016, finding that students barred from using laptops or digital devices in lectures and seminars did better in their exams than those allowed to use computers and access the internet. The researchers suggested that removing laptops and iPads from classes was the equivalent of improving the quality of teaching. The study divided 726 undergraduates randomly into three groups in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. The control group’s classrooms were “technology-free,” meaning students were not allowed to use laptops or tablets at their desk. Another group was allowed to use computers and other devices, and the third group had restricted access to tablets. The research had an unusual twist: the students involved were studying at the West Point Academy in the US, where cadets are ruthlessly ranked by exam results, meaning they were motivated to perform well and may have been more disciplined than typical undergraduates. But even for the cream of the US army’s future crop, the lure of the digital world appears to have been too much, and exam performance after a full course of studying economics was lower among those in classes allowed to use devices.  “Our results indicate that students perform worse when personal computing technology is available. It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point,” the researchers concluded.

Tom Bennett, the founder of the Research ED education group, who is leading a UK government-commissioned a review of smartphone use in classrooms, noted the research found that even the brightest students appeared to be distracted by the presence of digital devices, in contrast to previous studies. “Of course, nothing about this is conclusive and it needs to be read in the context of the undergraduate experience, but there are some interesting reflective points for all educators. Do you need to use tablets? How do you compensate for the possibility of distraction?” Bennett said.

Research published last year by the London School of Economics found that banning mobile phones affected school pupils according to their ability. “Banning mobile phones improved outcomes for the low-achieving students … and had no significant impact on high-achievers,” it concluded. The new research is distinctive because it analyzed the results of students in classroom conditions rather than as part of an artificial experiment. “In contrast to the laboratory-style research, our study measures the cumulative effects of internet-enabled classroom technology over the course of a semester, as opposed to its impact on immediate or short-term recall of knowledge,” the researchers said.

A study by Paul, Kirschner and Karpinski, reviewed the negative effects of attempting to simultaneously process different streams of information showing that such behavior leads to both increased study time to achieve learning parity and an increase in mistakes while processing information than those who are sequentially or serially processing that same information. This article presents the preliminary results of a descriptive and exploratory survey study involving Facebook use, often carried out simultaneously with other study activities, and its relation to academic performance as measured by self-reported Grade Point Average (GPA) and hours spent studying per week. Results show that Facebook® users were having lower GPAs and spend fewer hours per week studying than nonusers.

Having brought the negative aspects of media technologies in education and learning, there is also evidence that the internet and other technologies can affect higher education in a positive way. The Internet offers free resources in many formats that have opened the door for students, teachers and researchers. Books which would have been virtually impossible to get quickly just decades ago can now be found via keywords searches through various search engines. An amazingly large variety of information is either directly online if copyright allows, or in print through a local library.  Articles not under copyright are also freely accessible, as are videos. Multiple courses are available online free or for a small fee. From the teacher’s point of view, the Internet has made a world of difference. It makes it possible to share lesson plans with any other teacher in the world, to search for lesson plans when necessary, and to tweak them to better fit an individual style or need.

Speed is efficiency and the Internet makes both real-time updates and search speed realities. A search of any topics by a student today takes on average eight to ten seconds. The student then has more time to spend on reading the research carefully, writing, and editing. In addition, when searches happen instantaneously, more searches can be executed, which means students have time to learn critical thinking and search refinement. Those who are taught to use technologies as learning tools find that these tools are a benefit.

As good as the Internet can be and provide amazing opportunities in our today’s life, it may affect student performance and behavior.  Even children can be found engrossed in their own tablets and students nowadays have their own cellphones. So it’s no wonder why the Internet has immensely woven itself in the lives of people, relying on the ‘net for many things such as socialization, study, entertainment, and current events.

For students, spending a lot of time on the Internet can do more harm than good. The internet really affects students both negatively and positively. While the internet can be a reliable resource to help them with homework and school project, things can easily turn downhill when time on the internet overtakes time for study and school.

Face to face social skills are not exercised. At this stage of student life, they are learning about the world around them. While the Internet is supposed to bring people together, the fact that people only talk online instead of making an effort to meet each other is sending wrong messages to students and children. The internet affects students by depriving them of face-to-face, genuine communications.

There is perhaps an illusion in all of this. Social networking provides breath but rarely depth, and in-person contact is what crave, even if online contact seems to take away some of that craving. I n the end, the online interaction works best as a supplement not a replacement for in-person contact. The cost of all our electronic connectedness appears to be that it limits our biological capacity to connect with other people.

Because everything can be found on the internet, students don’t have to make more efforts or look for more ways to know the answer to homework, or even to their own questions. With the internet, they don’t need to pay any more attention, or think, or make more effort, because everything they need to know is just within a click of a button.

Time is spent on the internet instead of studying. There’s what is called nonessential internet use, when people tend to aimlessly surf the internet for information that they can’t even retain or remember after hours in a session. That’s what students do as well. The time in front of the computer is like being sucked in a black hole and this time would’ve been better spent doing more worthwhile and productive things that help hone students’ minds and skills. Excessive internet usage also steals away time for family. For example, instead of enjoying dinner time together, children are engrossed in their devices even while on the dining table. Some students stay up late at night just poring over random things on the internet. This is very harmful to the growing minds of students. Also, when they wake up the next day, they have low energy and tend to not pay attention or even fall asleep in class. Students, especially young children, need to be active. This is another way for them to develop their minds and bodies. However, being on the internet most of the time keeps them inactive, just seated on their chairs or even lying down when they should have been outdoors playing with a friend.

Those who spend more time online have an increased risk of developing internet addiction, which can derail the focus and the life of students. The internet affects students by feeding them with mindless data that can suck them in, making them vulnerable to getting addicted. Homework and other school projects can be copied right off the internet, making cheating very easy to do with just a few clicks. Academic fraud and plagiarism are common in school when students can look for ready-made answers on the internet. This kind of behavior breeds a culture of cheating and easy ways out of any problem. Everything can be found on the internet–and this also is true for inappropriate things. Students who are always on the internet are exposing themselves to material that can corrupt them. These things can result in bad mental and behavioral development in these students. In this case, the internet affects students by feeding them unfiltered information that is harmful to them.

All these said it’s up to both parents and teachers to ensure that students have limited access to internet and materials on the web. It is also up to them to ensure that students are using their time on the web responsibly. And finally, for teenagers and students, they need to learn to prioritize their time and discern the pros and cons of technology.


1. P. Carter, The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy. SEII, MIT, December 2016
2. Sherry Turkle, How to Make Space for Both People and Technology. Think: Act magazine (issue on “On Being Human”), Nov. 9, 2018.
3. Sherry Turkle, The Empathy Gap: Digital Culture Needs What Talk Therapy Offers. Psychotherapy Networker, November-December 2016.  pp. 29-33, continued, 54-55
4. P. Beland, R. Murphy, Technology, Distraction & Student Performance, Center for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, May 2015
5. A. Kirschner, A.C. Karpinski, Facebook® and academic performance, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol.26, Issue 6, November 2010, 1237-1245