As I start to take a look back on 2017 and in particular some of the digital conferences and technology events that I’ve attended, it feels as though an unspoken undertone has been ever present. An undertone warning us of a dystopian future, the danger constant digital connectivity poses to our mental health and physical well-being and the responsibility technology companies should or shouldn’t be taking.
The conversations I’ve been having at these events have in the most part been with digital marketing and technology professionals; people who probably have an interest in consumers being more connected, sharing more of their information and using devices and platforms more often. If our industry is collectively recognising a need for people to take a ‘digital detox’ or to at least have a greater awareness of things like screen time, then it must be a serious concern.
We touch our phones over 150 times a day on average, which is a staggering statistic and underlines our passive slavery to our devices.Tweet this now
I think it’s safe to assume that we all know devices can be taxing on our physical and emotional well-being. Too much screen time can cause headaches or trouble sleeping, responding to late-night emails can be stressful and prolonged social media use is linked to anxiety and depression. According to Apple, we touch our phones over 150 times a day on average which is a staggering statistic and underlines our passive slavery to our devices.
Being ‘addicted’ to our connected devices doesn’t at first glance seem that destructive or concerning and in fact, is quite often argued as a facilitator of better communication and relationship building but there are plenty of research studies that put forward the exact opposite view. Like this article in Forbes that explains the benefits of disconnecting and building face-to-face relationships and the positive impact, this can have, particularly in a professional environment.
So we know that it isn’t particularly good for our health. It’s also widely known that the creators of these devices, platforms and applications employ teams of experts to use manipulative design and functionality techniques in order to better clamour for our finite attention. This is something that has been well covered by Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist for Google who now lobbies the technology industry to design their products and services with ethical persuasion and moral responsibility at the forefront.
It can certainly be an eyeopener to view your interactions with devices and platforms through the lens of the behavioural economics department who meticulously designed and planned them. Snapchat ‘streaks’ are redefining how we measure friendship, Instagram’s individual notifications keep us checking our phones regularly, Facebook segregates us into algorithmically generated echo chambers while Netflix and YouTube invest heavily in curating and auto-playing content to keep us watching.
It’s interesting to look at the behaviours of different generations when it comes to the desire for more digital downtime. I have a theory that my generation remains digitally invested and still champion ‘full transparency’ online because we still remember life before the internet; we’ve grown up with a healthy mixture of online and offline recreation and still reminisce about the boundless joys of climbing a tree or building a fort – outside of Minecraft! I feel that the ‘digital-native’ generations since have grown up with far more online social pressures and are perhaps more susceptible to anxiety and even depression related to their digital experiences. For example, online trolling and cyberbullying wasn’t prevalent when I was growing up but is a very real concern for digital native children.
So I know that my device could be harmful to me and I know that the applications I use and even the device itself is engineered to get my attention as often and for as long as possible – but what’s the solution?
More and more people think the answer is to take regular ‘holidays’ from technology and the term ‘digital detox’ has now become part of the lexicon. Companies like DigitalDetox.org now exist and can offer digital detox retreats for us to “truly unplug and decompress” but to me, it feels a little like papering over the cracks.
While I think it’s a good idea in theory, in practice social media addiction, notification anxiety and all the other negative aspects will still be there when we turn our devices back on. It’s not just the retreats that seem of limited use, various other solutions that block social media or internet access across your devices are also configured for a fixed period of time so the negative impact is simply deferred to a later date.
Social media addiction, notification anxiety and all the other negative aspects will still be there when we turn our devices back on after a ‘digital detox’.Tweet this now
There are some more permanent fixes out there. For example, the recent popular return of the Nokia 3310 and other so-called ‘dumb phones’ that only make calls and send and receive text messages could offer a more long term fix but I can’t help thinking that these will just be used as a secondary device in case of emergencies when on digital detox retreats!
I know, even as I type this, that it’s simply not realistic for me to start living my life without instant access to social media, email and eCommerce. Without a smart device at my fingertips at all times. Even knowing that if I did, I’d probably be happier and more productive…
…and that may be just the reason ‘digital detox’ is doomed to remain a fad.