Mental health professionals believe excessive personal technology use has an adverse neuropsychological effect on attention and concentration, and this can be seen in the fleet.1 Though the medical community has not decided whether these effects constitute an addiction, the readiness effect is real. It is time for the Navy to do more specific research on the personnel impacts and our sailors’ attitudes toward personal technology use to understand the scope of the problem. Once the Navy understands the issue, it must raise awareness to mitigate the negative impact on fleet readiness.
The crew of an aircraft carrier is a microcosm of the fleet, and since data points from a large, diverse population flow through a single chain of command, observations there tend to manifest as trends before they aggregate fleetwide. I recently finished a two-year run as the executive officer (XO) on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). In this capacity, I worked daily with approximately 1 percent of the Navy’s personnel, 77 percent of whom are 25 or younger.2 Based on this experience, as well as through conversations with peers across the Navy, I found excessive personal technology use is having a detrimental impact on fleet readiness.
While civilian researchers debate personal device addiction, the effects that drive their debate are visible on the waterfront and on the flightline. My recent operational experience highlighted four areas of personnel readiness under attack from personal technology use: resiliency, manifested as suicidal ideation; retention, as seen through deteriorating physical fitness and qualifications; unplanned losses through disciplinary action; and lack of sleep. These areas of concern are all visible in the civilian world, raised by doctors, CEOs, and parents. Their collective impact in a Navy unit hurts combat readiness and may be responsible for more disasters to come. It is time this problem garners the widespread attention it deserves.
Four Areas of Concern
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the U.S. suicide rate increased 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, including a staggering 93 percent rise for females age 15–24.3 The annual rate of suicide increased after 2006, from flat to 2 percent for males, and from 2 percent to 3 percent for females. What accounts for this rise? Though the Great Recession in 2007–08 lines up fairly well, a study from 2011 shows that suicide correlates to the economy only for older age groups.4 Another correlation from between 2005 and 2009 shows cellphone ownership among 10- and 11-year-olds increased by 80 percent.5 Today’s junior sailor does not remember not owning one, or a time when social media was not used for morale and connection.
Social media use has a negative impact on mental health. A recent University of Pennsylvania study focused on two groups, one that made no changes to their baseline social media habits and a second that limited their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat time to ten minutes each day. After three weeks, the time-limited group showed significant reductions in “fear of missing out” (FOMO) versus their baseline, suggesting that, “limiting social media use . . . may lead to a significant improvement in well-being.”6
The fleet sees this phenomenon imperil sailors. In 2018, while in a drydocking availability, 47 percent of all Nimitz situation reports were for suicidal ideation admissions, twice as many as the next category.7 Almost invariably, the sailors involved had never deployed, but were disappointed by their life, partly because of personal technology use. While life is not easy in a shipyard, it is no combat zone. The Nimitz maintained consistent eight-hour workdays and eight-section duty for 16 months. By seeking to understand, we found device overuse common, supporting Penn’s conclusion that FOMO is real.
While those who carry suicidal thoughts to their sad conclusion were not led there by social media, the Penn study highlights that social media is having a profoundly negative effect on mental health. A review of military suicide prevention studies from 2017 found that “individuals who attempt suicide have a weakened expected reward signal . . . correlated with an exaggerated preference for smaller immediate rewards”—rewards that social media likes, shares, and level-ups provide.8
Reenlistment Eligibility Threatened
The CDC also tracks obesity, and in 2016–17, 20 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in the United States were obese.9 The sharpest rise in that cohort’s obesity begins in 2009–10, aligning with when 10- and 11-year-olds reached the cellphone-ownership tipping point. As the Heritage Foundation reported, only 29 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are eligible to join the military, and for 27 percent of those who cannot, it is because of physical fitness.10 Those who have joined have won a physical and mental lottery, and too often sailors shred this winning ticket by failing the physical fitness assessment (PFA).
In the Nimitz’s fall 2018 PFA cycle, for paygrades E-1 through E-3, failures outnumbered the total number of sailors who scored Excellent Medium and above (the top five categories)—combined! Sailors right out of boot camp are beginning their careers with a threat to their potential reenlistment. Personal technology use may be to blame. A study of 10,000 junior U.S. Air Force airmen found that “screen time alone was associated with PFA failure” and “decreasing screen time may be an important target of behavioral interventions.”11
That correlation is clear in qualification failures. Sailors who fail to earn their enlisted warfare qualifications within the required 30 months lose their reenlistment recommendation. It is more than a case of a few sailors who fall short or a lack of opportunities in the service. The Nimitz’s internet data from the month prior to pulling out of drydock showed more than 30 percent of bandwidth use was Facebook and Google video, while only 4 percent was .mil addresses. One of the most common complaints I heard was about the limits on what can be accessed online during working hours. These data show why: when people are on board, they are not necessarily working.12 Rather than using their time on board to prepare for sea, too many are falling into the internet spiral, threatening their career and impacting readiness.
Discipline: The Collateral Threat to Readiness
I wrote this article after going through the nonjudicial punishment (NJP) files and seeing that 80 percent of those sailors had multiple write-ups for being late to work or disappearing during the duty day. More investigation exposed going to bed late because of gaming, internet use, and social media as the root causes.
For sailors on restriction, devices became even more of a disciplinary threat. Part of the restriction order forbids using devices without permission. Even still, catching restricted sailors with cellphones was so common as to necessitate NJP policy changes. A submarine commanding officer sharing the shipyard with Nimitz said that sailors were risking their careers by bringing their phones into restricted areas because they could not bear to leave them.
Sleep Should Be Our Wake-up Call
The impact of electronics on sleep should be enough to move the Navy to educate. Onboard routines of shift work, watches at odd hours, and near-constant noise exacerbate the typical American’s lack of sleep.13 However, a walk through berthing after taps or shift change reveals gaming systems, tablets playing downloads, flat screen TVs mounted in racks, and phone games and videos everywhere. Nearly all sailors use their phones for their alarm; it is the last thing they see before they go to sleep, the first when they wake. Exposure to light at night suppresses melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythms, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.14 In addition, the emotional arousal of games and short-term rewards on social media can alter the brain’s neurochemistry, further impacting sleep.15
The Navy has taken steps to address fatigue—a recent change mandated crew rest for all sailors on aircraft carriers, not just aviators. These changes, helpful in reducing duties that impact sleep, almost certainly will lead to more screen time if not accompanied by education on the effects of personal technology use. No one would contend that command physical training is all it takes for a sailor to pass the PFA—there is a personal responsibility to prepare. The same holds true for sleep. Any sleep policy is useless without understanding the personal responsibility of being ready to assume full duties.
Understand and Educate
Since the average American checks his or her phone 52 times each day, this issue is not limited to the younger generations.16 The data cited, however, are based on those under 25 years old. Since this represents the vast majority of U.S. sailors, this issue has an outsize influence on the fleet. The data are so striking for this cohort because Americans under 25 spend an average of 34 percent more time on social media per day.17 This also is not just an issue of “kids these days.” What personal technology use represents is not new, it simply is the newest personal vice to impact readiness, indicating models to understand and address it exist.
There has been reluctance on the part of some in the Navy to regard personal technology use as a threat. For younger leaders, constant access is normal. Senior leaders may be unaware of the risks. For others it is because the Navy has spent a great deal of time and money cultivating a digital presence to communicate with sailors, telling them to cut back seems contradictory. Communication does not need to be a roadblock to education. As Navy Commander Andrew Doan put it, leadership communication tools are “digital veggies”—healthy with low abuse potential. The problem the fleet is seeing is the sometimes healthy but often empty calories of “digital sugar” being abused and harming readiness.
The Navy health risk assessment and command climate and safety surveys are useful for pushing the fleet to grasp the effects of electronics on sailors and understanding the scope of the problem across all communities and homeports. Once the Navy does so, it should leverage the work already done in the civilian population and in other services to build a standardized education program.18 Such a program can ensure that units have the latest information to help sailors understand the impacts of seemingly innocuous digital actions.
These programs already exist, but in a localized fashion. On board the Nimitz, the ship’s psychologist, chaplains, judge advocate, and deployed resiliency counselors formed a wellness team that identified the common trends in counseling and discipline and developed campaigns to address them. One campaign targeted gaming, and in another, the ship’s medical professionals built a class to teach sailors proper sleep hygiene. In the submarine force, a “resiliency approach” to addressing the stressors common with technology use has reduced unplanned losses by 76 percent across Pacific submarines since November 2016, saving a sub crew a year.19 Individual commands are making efforts, but without a comprehensive approach, the Navy will see unbalanced results.
Adding a general military training topic to the optional training list can provide a mechanism for leaders to educate crews on the impacts of personal technology use. The “Right Spirit” responsible drinking campaign provides a good model. Both alcohol and technology are legal and can be used moderately to enhance social engagement and both have addictive properties impacting workplace performance. Yet, trends point to the fact that personal technology use is affecting a larger population than alcohol.
It is becoming clear that personal technology devices are winning the battle for Americans’ time and attention, and the fleet is seeing readiness atrophy as a result. Banning phones and gaming systems fleetwide is not viable; however, the effects on readiness demand that the Navy set boundaries, communicate expectations through realistic policies, and educate sailors. The Navy is right to move toward a connected online presence, communicating directly with sailors and the public. When it comes to preparing for combat, the service wants sailors to make smart, mature choices. The only way to achieve that is for the Navy and sailors to understand the impact of their devices.
1. American Psychological Association, Technology-Based Behavioral Addictions
2. Navy end strength is approximately 330,000, and the USS Nimitz’s crew numbers about 3,200.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “National Center for Health Statistics,” 3 October 2018, www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db330.htm.
4. Feijun Luo, Curtis S. Florence, Myriam Quispe-Agnoll, Lijing Ouyang, and Alexander E. Crosby, “Impact of Business Cycles on U.S. Suicide Rates, 1928–2007,” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 6 (June 2011),
5. “Chart of the Day: One Third of U.S. 11-Year-Olds Have Cellphones,” Business Insider, 19 January 2010.
6. Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, and Jordyn Young, “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31, no. 10 (2018)
7. Based on fleet SITREP guidance, reports are sent on those admitted, not on those released, which would drive numbers even higher. The second-highest number was for drunk-driving arrests.
8. C. J. Bryan and D. C. Rozek, “Suicide Prevention in the Military: a Mechanistic Perspective,” Current Opinion in Psychology 22 (24 July 2017)
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Obesity Index,” www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/index.html.
10. Thomas Spoehr, “The Looming National Security Crisis: Young Americans Unable to Serve in the Military,” The Heritage Foundation
11. S. J. de la Motte, M. M. Welsh, V. Castle, D. Burnett, G. D. Gackstetter, A. J. Littman, E. J. Boyko, and T. I. Hopper, “Comparing Self-Reported Physical Activity and Sedentary Time to Objective Fitness Measures in a Military Cohort,” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 22, no. 1 (January 2019), 59–64.
12. A CVN has fewer than 1,000 computers for 3,000 personnel. Most junior sailors do not have regular computer access, so bandwidth data skews toward E6 and above.
13. “1 in 3 Adults Don’t Get Enough Sleep,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 February 2019
14. “Is Your Smartphone Ruining Your Sleep?” Sleep.org.
15. D. Austin Frisbie, Psy.D., licensed psychologist, email, 7 May 2019.
16. Kevin Westcott and U.S. Telecom, “Global Mobile Consumer Survey: U.S. Edition,” Deloitte United States, 28 February 2019.
17. Catey Hill, “The Dark Reason so Many Millennials Are Miserable and Broke,” MarketWatch, 14 May 2019.
18. U.S. Army and Air Force researchers have shared that they are studying these issues.
19. CDR Derek Miletich, MC (UMO, FS), USN, email, 15 May 2019.