Digital Addiction: Time for a Digitox?

Cross post published in Qatar Today, June 2013. (Their website is currently undergoing maintenance, but you can see a cached copy here.)

 

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What was the first thing you did this morning?  Did you lean over and kiss your spouse? May be you staggered, bleary-eyed, into the bathroom for an invigorating shower. Or perhaps you rolled over and lazily hit the snooze button? Repeatedly. Until you really had to get up.

For many of us, our first reaction was probably none of these things. Instead, we probably reached for our phone and checked our e-mail. Then our social networks. And only then did we feel like we were ready to face whatever challenges the day in front of us posed.

If you fall into this last camp (I don’t, but I’m married to someone who does), then don’t worry. You are not alone. In fact you can probably take comfort from the thought  that at least you don’t live in South Korea. Last year the government of the digital pioneering nation estimated that 2.55 million of its 50 million population were addicted to their smartphones. To fall into this category you had to use your phone for over 8 hours a day. That’s a lot of screen time.

Examples such as this are part of an increasing volume of evidence that suggests that among the benefits of living in a 24/7 connected world there are downsides too. Not least our digital dependence.

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle identified this digital irony in her book Alone Together when she gave it the very telling sub-heading “Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”.  As she notes on her website, “we shape our buildings, Winston Churchill argued, then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies. Technology has become the architect of our intimacies.”

This sentiment is arguably especially applicable to young people. A 2012 report, “Gen Z: Digital in their DNA”  by JWT Intelligence, found that amongst those born after 1995 more than half said it was easier or more convenient to chat with friends digitally than face to face. And around four in 10 were more comfortable talking online than in real life, and found it more fun.

Yet at the same time, the 2012 report “Understand the Arab Digital Generation  (Internet users aged 15-35 in the Middle East)” by Booz & Company and Google found that “37% [of their 3,127 respondents] believe that technology has reduced family communication and cohesion”.

And of course young people aren’t the only ones who are finding that technology is changing the nature of their relationships with friends and family. Or indeed the employer-employee dynamic. (They don’t call it a “crackberry” for nothing.)

A 2007 report by Kelton Research concluded that three out of five Americans spend more time at the computer keyboard than they do with their significant other at home.

Meanwhile, in 2011 the UK communications regulator, Ofcom, reported that more than a third of adults and 60% of teens admitted to being “highly addicted” to their smartphones.

This manifested itself in behaviours that divide opinion, with nearly a quarter (23%) of UK adults and a third (34%) of teenagers admitting to having used their smartphone during mealtimes.

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That may be acceptable, but when more than a fifth of UK adult and nearly half of UK teenage smartphone users admit to using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet, perhaps we have to ask if our need for connectivity has gone too far?

Certainly some consumers, and increasingly employers, think so.

In South Korea children as young as three years old are now being taught how to control their electronic device and internet use, while some schools now ask students to hand in these devices at the start of the school day, so that students remain focused on their lessons instead of their handsets.

In the working environment, German company Daimler has announced plans for staff to be able to “auto-delete” any e-mails that get sent to them when they’re on vacation. As a result, you avoid the guilty temptation of reading them whilst sat on the beach, and the dread of coming back to several hundred e-mails (or more).

Many individuals too are taking more control of their digital access, including having periods of deliberate digital downtime. There’s even a word for it: Digitox.

These digital detoxes – a typically self-imposed temporary exile from Facebook et al – can last anywhere between a few hours and several weeks or months. And if you need help to go “cold turkey” there are hotels and holiday companies lining up for you to pay top dollar to be disconnected from the electronic world.

Given the pace of change and adoption of new technology, it is not really surprising that social norms are sometimes struggling to keep up. And one thing is for sure, digital norms and behaviours will continue to evolve as new technologies come online and go mainstream. Anticipated trends, from wearable computing like Google Glass to virtual offices, 3D printing and holographic teleconferencing, will all challenge the digital status quo.

Mads Thimmer, founder of Danish emerging technologies network Innovation Lab, tells us: “There’s no need to be afraid…The beauty of the online society to come is that it will have an off button.”

The thing is, I suspect I won’t be the only one who may need help finding it.

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