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Michelle Hackman

You won't see dinosaur dioramas or baking-soda volcanoes at the Intel Science Talent Search, the annual science fair where high school seniors compete for $1.25 million in awards and scholarships. What you will see are creative research projects from the next generation of scientists, including, this year, a second-place finish by budding psychologist Michelle Hackman.

The Great Neck North High School senior won a $75,000 college scholarship by exploring the addictive nature of cell phones. She split 150 high school-age participants into two groups. Both groups stayed in an empty room for 45 minutes, one group with their cell phones and the other without. During the study, members of both groups wore devices that monitored the electrical conductance of their skin, a measure of anxiety, and answered survey questions about their mental state. 

Hackman found that the kids with their cell phones were more anxious than those without them — the opposite of what she'd hypothesized. Forty-five of the participants were so bored without their cell phones, they fell asleep. 

These results gave her an idea: Perhaps not having your cell phone doesn't result in anxiety so much as it leaves you unable to stimulate yourself. 

Hackman's ability to learn from her unexpected findings garnered her second place, and the project inspired her to continue with psychology research as an undergraduate at Yale, and perhaps, someday, as a graduate student. gradPSYCH spoke with Hackman about her research and her future plans.

How did you come up with your research question?

I'd been reading a lot about technology in the news and how it's affecting our behavior. People have been talking about how we can't pay attention anymore. So there were all sorts of questions floating around like, "How is our attachment to technology affecting us?" Internet addiction has been studied, but cell-phone addiction really hasn't been. So that's where I tapped in.

How did you react when you realized your experiment wasn't turning out like you expected?

It was terrible, at first. A lot of the kids were falling asleep. I was like, "This is not a science experiment! What on earth is happening?" But I noted it because it was happening so often. Sleeping is a manifestation of understimulation or boredom, so if you were to take the converse and say that kids who did have their phones were able to stimulate themselves — and when the phones were taken away, they lost that ability — that suggested an addiction. The drug is like a stimulant and in this case it seems like the cell phone is a stimulant. The really crude comparison I like to make is that text messages are almost like hits of cocaine.

What do you think that says about our reliance on technology?

It's almost like text messages have hijacked our attention spans. Now that we have things like texts, emails, the internet, even video games, if we lose access to them, we no longer can train our attention for long periods of time. 

Just today in class, we were working on a group presentation and half the kids were on their phones and the other half was getting frustrated because they were doing all the work. They were like, "Get off your phone!" And one of them put her phone down and said, "I don't know, I probably just have ADD." I looked at her and said, "No, you probably just have cell-phone addiction."

How did your project compare with the other finalists?

At the Intel finals, I couldn't have explained one thing to you about the other projects; they were so beyond me. But I think with psychology, it's more comprehensible and therefore it's actually a little tougher to come up with a sophisticated psychology project than it is to come up with, say, a sophisticated physics project. 

Also, I think it's likely that for a lot of the physics and chemistry projects, the kids didn't completely come up with their projects on their own. They're often done in labs and so they rely a lot on mentors to help them do the work. And so I think if you have a psychology project and you've really engineered it on your own and you've administered it and analyzed it on your own, that demonstrates a high level of scientific thinking.

What's next for you?

I'm going to Yale in the fall. I'm going to study psychology. I can't speak to graduate school at all, but I think going in I want to bring the cell-phone research with me. I've had a lot of fun with it. I thought after talking about it so much I'd be sick of it, but so many judges and people I've spoken with have asked, "Have you considered changing this or doing that?" and I really would like to conduct some follow-up studies. The field is so relatively untouched that if I were to run a few more experiments and publish a few more studies, I could be an expert in my field while I'm still in college, which would be very cool.