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Q&A with Ronnie Jia: Autism, IT, and technology’s dark side

Ronnie Jia, associate professor in the School of Information Technology

Ronnie Jia, associate professor in the School of Information Technology

Ronnie Jia, an associate professor in the School of Information Technology (IT) at Illinois State University, has extensively researched IT-related individual traits, their origins and implications for the individual and the organization, particularly the “dark side” of IT use. Jia is currently working on a project that explores the potential connection between autism and the IT field.

Jia obtained master’s degrees in information systems and business administration before earning his Ph.D. in information systems. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Association for Information Systems, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Communications of Association for Information Systems, Computers in Human Behavior, Journal of Behavioral Addictions, and other outlets.

A great deal of his research has been done in partnership with his wife, Heather Jia, an associate professor in the Department of Management and Quantitative Methods. They have examined the improper use of technology in the workplace, the causes of such behavior, and the effects on organizations.

Jia talks about his research in the following interview. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are you researching right now, and what are you finding out?

I have always been interested in understanding what factors make one become interested in IT. In other words, why do some students pursue an education and a career in IT while others might be more interested in social sciences and humanities? Unfortunately, there are few answers in the IT research literature, so I started an exploratory study to search for some initial answers.

The model that I am testing is called a “Nature versus Nurture Model of Intrinsic Interest in IT,” where one’s autistic tendency (nature) and parental attachment insecurity (nurture) are the main predictors. This model builds on prior studies in psychology that show that autistic traits are associated with an over-engagement with objects and systems (high “systemizing”) along with a lack of interest in people and social interaction (low “empathizing”).

This model also builds on attachment theory research that shows that children raised by responsive and consistent parents tend to develop the expectation that others will be available and supportive when needed (i.e., secure attachment), while those raised by negligent, rejecting, or otherwise unavailable parents will not develop much interest or trust in interpersonal relationships and social interactions (i.e., insecure attachment). Thus, securely attached individuals are more likely to gravitate toward people and people-focused fields while insecurely attached ones toward objects and technical fields.

In other words, I hypothesized that those with high autistic traits and insecure parental attachment are more likely to develop a strong interest in IT. In fact, it is likely that these relationships are more broadly applicable to other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Initial results from a survey of over 200 students have shown strong support for the hypotheses. We are currently preparing a manuscript and expect to submit it for peer review this fall.

“As an IT researcher, it is important to understand who we are in the IT community and why students become attracted to the field.”—Ronnie Jia

Some of this research will likely be viewed as controversial since you’re suggesting a connection between individuals on the autism spectrum and IT as a career. What can you say about that work?

My goal in this research is to stimulate interest and encourage self-reflection and debate among researchers, IT professionals, and students. The linkage between autism and IT has long been suspected in the popular press as some journalists call it IT’s “open secret.” However, it has somehow never caught the attention of IT researchers.

Though some may feel that this study is provocative and doesn’t portray IT folks in a particularly positive light, it should not be shocking to anyone, as we all know the stereotypes of “the IT guy.”

As an IT researcher, it is important to understand who we are in the IT community and why students become attracted to the field. It also helps user groups and those in other fields better understand those IT workers who seem to have difficulty with small talk or don’t respond to jokes.

It also helps us understand the gender disparity in IT and other STEM fields. If boys are five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as autistic, it is no surprise that males, rather than females, dominate a technical field like IT.

Your research has looked at potential connections between parental attachment and problematic Internet use—is there really another personality shortcoming that we can blame on our parents?

Turns out there are really quite a few things that we could blame on our parents. Autistic traits are highly genetic, and the caregiver’s parenting style also directly influences one’s attachment security, which shapes subsequent social development and interpersonal relationships for life.

One major predictor of Internet addiction is insecure parental attachment. A child who is neglected or rejected by parents can grow up lacking trust for other human beings, which can lead one to divert attention to objects, rather than seeking satisfaction and fulfillment through interpersonal relationships. Some of the most exciting objects, nowadays, are computers and technology. So, a lot of these issues really do speak to the family dynamic.

Technology is such a big part of contemporary life, but is there a dark side of technology use?

Oh, yes. Aren’t we all somewhat addicted to our smartphones? The first device that catapulted us into this always-connected world is affectionately referred to as a “CrackBerry.”

Modern IT has certainly changed our work and personal lives, providing us with productivity gains and entertainment while also allowing us to seek diversion and escape from challenges in life, like health issues, relationship issues, and obligations. Happy people generally don’t have addiction issues of any kind. And, for people who are extra-introverted, alcohol, video games, Facebook, and online gambling all offer escape and allow them to be themselves in a world that is too demanding or too socially wired for them, a world that encourages social interactions and teamwork.

Before the Internet was widely available, IT was mostly used to improve productivity or for other instrumental reasons but not so much for enjoyment or hedonic use. As more and more technologies and personal devices are developed for pleasure (or dual use), the dark side of IT use is also becoming salient. A small but growing literature has begun to investigate these phenomena.

Part of your research into the so-called dark side involves technology addiction. What is that?

Technology addiction refers to a condition where one develops a psychological dependency on technology use. It is often manifested as excessive use, obsessive thoughts about use, and withdrawal symptoms without use. There is Internet addiction, online gambling addiction, etc.

Don’t we all know someone who can’t stop checking emails or looking at Facebook on their phone? Being addicted to technology is not really an addiction to the technology itself per se; it is an addiction to the things that one can do with technology. It is also unlikely a stand-alone phenomenon; there often exists some deeper psychological maladaptation at work that may be manifested in various ways, including in the realm of technology.

Heather once conducted an in-class experiment to demonstrate to students our dependency on technology. She offered a good amount of bonus points to students who were willing to surrender their phones for 48 hours. Less than half of the class took the offer.

Nearly all of those who did said they didn’t realize how hard it would be to disconnect, and many heard “phantom rings” or experienced moments of panic. Several students changed their minds midway through, saying that they would rather have their phones back early than receive the bonus credit.

John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.

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Comments

I can't even. I can't even finish reading this lump of garbage. Does he realize he has just dusted off "Refrigerator Mother" concept. I thought we were past that. I will shortex your offensive research by answering your question. Why IT, because no shop classes. There it is. 2 generations ago these minds woyld have been devided among tech fields, architecture, military defence and other engineering. But all these minds know is computers, rhere is you answer. Now please srop blaming moms.

in reply to Amy Basko Gudmundson

First off, "refrigerator mother" is a theory that blames mother's nature for autism. Here he is suggesting that the strong hereditary component to autism means the children of undiagnosed mothers are more likely to have it themselves. Hands of mothering would also delay the development of coping skills autistic children must learn to better interact with others. The child would have always been autistic, but the mother does have a hand in how it may be expressed. Secondly, working in tech has the benefit of multiple attempts and not requiring strong hand-eye coordination, soomething many autistics lack. The power tools and permanence of mistakes made in shop and art can be intimidating to those with these weaknesses. Tech has become more widespread, but also appeals the autistics usual set of strengths and weaknesses. Any mistake made can be undone, and the user has total control of their tool. That's not to say neurotypicals can't like tech, or that all autistics do. Tech simply caters the most to autistics, and it is a field in which they often have more to offer.

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