Some of you are old enough to remember a time before the Internet, and certainly a time before mobile devices became popular. These two events are roughly comparable to the major innovations in communications technology of the 20th century, viz., radio and television. Internet first came to our house, in the form of a dial-up modem, sometime around 1993-1994. Let me tell you, the Internet looked much different then, and there were many companies around then that you never hear of today — like Tandy computers and Prodigy web service.
Fast forward ten years, roughly to 2004-2005, and suddenly wifi was everywhere. The ability to actually use the Internet without a cable attached to your computer was quite strange at first but weirdly liberating. Very shortly afterwards, smartphones were everywhere and the world became a place where no one looks up when they walk and, for that matter, when they drive (ok, I’m being a bit dramatic).
I’ll be honest with you, the majority of my waking hours every day are spent looking at a screen connected to the Internet, and I’m sure the same is true for most of you. As more and more of our world moves online…and most of it already is…it seems that the topography of our daily behavior is reducing down to mere finger twitches, though the functions of that narrow range of topographies are growing exponentially. In other words, we can do much more with much less these days. Making a few key strokes on a laptop or a few thumb pecks on a smartphone allows you to do an almost infinite number of things, from paying your taxes to ordering pizza, hacking into a government database to steal sensitive information…oh yeah, and spend countless hours on Facebook.
The narrowing of topographies coupled with compounding of response functions makes fertile ground for response generalization, which can create behavioral problems. Response generalization is the process by which the reinforcement of a certain class of behavior extends to other classes not directly targeted (click here for a succinct definition). Internet behavior is so useful today that it can be excessively strengthened to the point of creating behavior problems. For example, Internet addiction is now a topic studied by behavior analysts, such as Saville et al. (2010). Another emergent problem is distracted driving, or “texting and driving,” which has contributed to many accidents and fatalities (see this infographic). Thus, a guiding question for behavior analysts of the future is how to develop interventions to cut back the overgeneralized response class to more socially-appropriate areas.
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues. He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at email@example.com.