If you use technology on a daily basis, whether at home or at work, you probably need a regular digital detox, but you won’t necessarily realise it. According to Ofcom reports:
- On average people check their smartphone every 12 minutes while they’re awake. 1
- 40% of people first look at their phone within 5 minutes of waking up, excluding the alarm clock. This increase to 65% for the under 35s. 2
- 37% check their phones 5 minutes before lights-out. This increase to 60% for the under 35s. 2
- On average a UK adult smartphone user spends 2 hours 34 minutes per day online. Smartphones and tablets accounted for 75% of the total time online. 3
- 87% of UK households have internet access, with 82% of people using home broadband and 70% using a 4G mobile service to get online. 3
We have all developed digital habits, but, as with all habits, we don’t always know that we are doing them. This is because much, if not all of the habit, may be performed outside of our conscious awareness. We will of course be able to notice other people who are easily distracted by their smartphones or tablets and who become unresponsive and withdrawn to those around them, particular if they are not giving us their full attention. But if the same thing is pointed out to us, it will probably be hard to accept.
It might be counterintuitive, but we have to digital detox to prove to ourselves that we need to.
In this first article I would like to engage your curiosity and describe why we all need to regularly digital detox to improve our health and wellbeing, reveal some of the reasons why we might be spending too much time on our smartphones and tablets and look at how we might be being influenced, as well as digital detox training and the need to create a Sanctuary. In a second article I will elaborate on how a regular Digital Detox can improve your creativity, performance and productivity at work.
What is digital detox?
The objective of digital detox is to help us restore the balance between our virtual digital world and our real physical and emotional lives. For most of us this means reducing the time we spend on our smartphones and tablets, and being more in control of when, where and what we do on them, and most importantly for how long. Put simply it’s a way to disconnect to reconnect.
It’s surprising to think that it was only June 2007 when the first iPhone was introduced. This is generally considered to be the start of mass smartphone uptake, despite the existence of other Smartphones and the launch of the 3G mobile network four years earlier. Our overindulgence in our digital technology is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Why we all need to Digital Detox?
As a technologist, I’m a great believer in individuals being able to exercise control and being empowered through innovation and technology so that we can all live more effective and fulfilling lives. However, many people are finding it hard to control and so spend too much of their valuable time immersed in their smartphones and tablets, and this can cause them harm through:
- A more sedentary lifestyle and not enough time to exercise.
- Reduced and poor quality sleep which directly impacts our overall physical and mental health. It also degrades how we function at home and at work.
- Loss of productivity and increased stress by being overwhelmed by distractions, not being in control and failing to achieve what we want or need to do.
- Missing out on important social relationships with our partners, children, friends and work colleagues.
- Poor quality decisions and actions caused by not having enough time to think and exercise our own judgement. We instead follow the biases and ‘Nudges’ that operate outside of our conscious awareness.
But there are many others too.
If we are constantly engaged or distracted by our smartphones and tablets, we become unresponsive and withdrawn to those around us. This can cause problems in our inter-personal relationships, and indeed it has been shown that shown that unresponsive parents can cause very young children to become confused and distressed. 4 Since our brains can’t multi-task, but rather switch between tasks quickly, this means that all our human interactions will be poorer and less satisfying for the other person. Not paying attention to someone also sends out the message that they’re not important enough to us?
Restoring the balance between our virtual and real lives will not only reinvigorate us, but will also improve the quality of our human interactions, relationships and our health and wellbeing.
Why do we spend so much time on our smartphones and tablets?
For the most of us, our smartphones, tablets and being online are essential to live and work in our modern digitally connected world, whether it’s for tasks that make our lives easier, more efficient or rewarding at home or at work, or to be connected with our friends and family. They are also invaluable for news, shopping, education, health and fitness, entertainment and much more.
The problem is that it’s all too easy to spend too much time engaged and distracted by our favourite social media, apps, websites and games. Here are a few of the reasons why this might happen:
- Persuasive design techniques are at the heart of why most people don’t realise how long they spend on their digital devices. They exert a psychological hold and try to manipulate and ‘nudge’ us in the directions that suit their own commercial interests. Examples include the exploitation of distractions with audio and visual notifications, infinite screen scrolling, and ‘likes and views’ that play on our fears of missing out (FOMO). They operate mostly outside of our awareness at the unconscious level and seek to create dopamine seeking reward loops to create habits, keep us engaged for longer and to keep coming back for more.
- Being on our smartphones and tablets makes us feel busy, and we believe that we are being more productive. We also feel uncomfortable or guilty if we are not busy doing something. In reality, they are designed to constantly distract us and so make us significantly less productive. Many of the things that we do on our Smartphones and online at home and at work have no productivity value at all!
- We believe that we have too much to do and not enough time, which means that we are often tired and so more vulnerable to manipulation.
- Our digital world operates much faster than we can consciously respond to and so we tend to respond unconsciously to the persuasive design techniques.
- Our media relies on drama extremes to grab our attention. 5. Negative stories, extreme opposites and conflicts are much more dramatic, engaging and provocative. But this is not how the world really is and for some people this distortion can be a cause of stress.
Are we being influenced?
A problem associated with Social Media and targeted (personalised) content is how our individual behaviour might be impacted by emotional and social contagion.
In June 2014 we had a rare glimpse into the world of global hyperscale tech companies with the publication of a scientific paper entitled ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’. 6 It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (PNAS), and included an ‘Editorial expression of concern’ as questions had been raised about the principles of informed consent.
The experiment involved 689,003 Facebook users and showed ‘that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.’ The study selected Facebook users had their exposure to friends’ positive emotional content reduced, whilst others had their negative emotional content reduced. In both cases this led the users to change their posting behaviour to be more consistent with the exposure.
In September 2012 ‘A 61 million person experiment in social influence and political mobilization’ was published in the journal Nature. 7 In this randomised controlled trial political mobilisation messages were delivered to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 US congressional elections. The results showed that not only did the messages directly influence the real-world voting of people receiving them, but also friends and friends of friends through social contagion. The results suggest that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters.
The important point here is that the sample size is so large that even a small ‘nudge’ effect can have a significant impact. In the US the ability to mobilise voters was a factor in the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.
The Cambridge Analytica misuse of Facebook personal data scandal highlighted how this effect could be exploited. In 2014, 270,000 people responded to a quiz on Facebook which allowed personal data to be collected on approximately 50 million people. This then found its way to the U.K company Cambridge Analytica. It was claimed that through psychometric profiling of individuals, the company were able to target (or personalise) messages to US voters for the benefit of their US Clients. On 1 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company filed for insolvency proceedings and closed operations. 8
What does your digital footprint reveal?
In January 2015 a study entitled ‘Computer-Based Personality Judgements are More Accurate Than Those Made by Humans’ was published by PNAS. It demonstrated “that the judgments of people’s personalities based on their digital footprints are more accurate and valid than judgments made by friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc.” 9
The giant tech companies operate complex big data surveillance on individuals for their experiences. 10 Each of us will probably have a psychometrically based User Profile Information (UPI) and this informs them on how to personalise and target adverts, news, media and in some cases to ‘Nudge’ our behaviour.
But have you ever wondered what your psychometric UPI might reveal?
To get a glimpse of a simple version of your psychometric profile revealed from your likes, posts and comments you can download your data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you input this into a reputable psychometrics algorithm, such as the one from Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre. 11, then you may be surprised by what might be revealed about you.
- Your approximate age range and psychological gender, (masculine or feminine).
Personality traits such as:
- Conservative/traditional or liberal/artistic.
- Impulsive/spontaneous or organised/hardworking.
- Contemplative or engaged with the outside world.
- Competitive or team working and trusting.
- Laid back and relaxed or easily stressed and emotional.
Your personality type, leadership potential and an interesting summary of what your digital footprint says about who you are.
However, your digital footprint will probably give away much more personal information than this including your political views and persuasions, sexual orientation, purchases and shopping preferences, sporting & leisure interests, where you live and work and your friends & family.
Now spare a thought for children!
In November 2018 the Children’s Commissioner’s Office published a report into the collection and sharing of children’s data entitled ‘Who knows what about me?’ 12 It highlighted that our children’s digital footprints begin when their parents upload the first baby photo to social media. On average, parents have posted 1,300 photos by the time their child reaches 13. When children themselves start using these platforms, the amount of information explodes. By 18 they will have an estimated 70,000 posts. More data is collected on children than ever before. How this data could be used in the future and what impact this might have on their future education, health and career opportunities is unknown.
So be very careful what you post, comment, like and share.
We all need a sanctuary
Would you warn your guests that you have smart speakers before they enter your home?
In a BBC Technology article ‘Google chief: I'd disclose smart speakers before guests enter my home’ posted on the 15th October 2019, 13 Leo Kelion describes how Google’s devices chief, Mr Osterloh, was caught by surprise by this question. As more and more people have devices such as a Google Nest speaker or an Amazon Echo display which are always on, it’s perhaps appropriate for guests to know that surveillance equipment is in operation. The answer he gave was that he would and does when someone enters his home, and he says it's probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate.
The important point here is that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to their children is to provide a physical place of safety and security from the outside world. For many of us, this has always been our homes, which are a safe place to retreat and to be ourselves.
With global hyperscale tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and others, our homes of the future will always be online through the ubiquitous technology of smartphones, tablets, wearables, TVs, digital assistants, and now the Internet of Things (IoT) of home security systems, heating, lights, fridges, even our toothbrushes, fitness watches and children’s toys.
These devices collect data about our everyday experiences and lives, always listening, tracking, and recording and sharing our every move. They tend to operate just outside of our awareness so they can suggest and nudge our next move, purchase and even our thoughts like the very best mentalists and magicians. After a while we won’t even notice them anymore. Welcome to the ‘hive’, 10.
Our children will grow up in this new and expanding hive and won’t have any experience of a time before. Parents especially need to hold onto the physical privacy for their families by designating parts of the home as Sanctuaries, places of safety from the pressure of our digitally connected world.
Digital Wellbeing coaching
Most people wouldn’t run a marathon if they had never run before or done any training. If you want to achieve something that’s new and challenging, many people find it easier and more motivating to be coached.
Digital Wellbeing coaching is designed to help people take control and to create space where they have time to think. Gaining control over our environment was a key survival skill in our evolution, so we feel less stress if we have some influence. To do this we need to:
- Be able to easily choose when to disconnect from our smartphones and tablets, so that we are better able to reconnect with other more important things in life.
- Recognise that persuasive design and ‘nudge’ techniques are being used outside of our awareness and to be able to consciously counteract them.
- Be aware of the extent of digital surveillance and be more able to decide what personal information and experiences to share, and to appreciate the importance of an off-line sanctuary.
In this first article I set out to engage your curiosity and describe some of the reasons why we are all spending too much time on our Smartphones and Tablets, and why we should all disconnect to reconnect.
Everyone has the potential to make positive changes in their lives. Breaking and modifying bad digital habits may take a lot of conscious effort, time and commitment. So like sport, it involves regular training and the idea of many small steps to reach your personal goal, rather than an instant fix or magical pill. To be successful we need to really want to make a change and replace the superficial distractions and the additive lure of our Smartphones and Tablets with other activities that help us engage with our humanity.
Bibliography / Acknowledgements
‘Communications Market Report’, (2 Aug 2018), Ofcom. ↩
‘Parents: Put Down Your Smart Phones’, (26 April 2018), Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary Ph.D., Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/more-feeling/201804/parents-put-down-your-smart-phones. ↩
‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, and Why Things are Better Than You Think’, (2018), Factfulness AB, Hodder & Stoughton. ↩
‘Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks’, (17 Jun 2014), Adam D. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory & Jeffrey T. Hancock, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (PNAS), vol.111, no.24. ↩
‘A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization’, Robert M. Bond, Christopher J. Fariss, Jason J. Jones, Adam D. I. Kramer, Cameron Marlow, Jaime E. Settle & James H. Fowler, Nature volume 489, pages 295–298, (13 September 2012). ↩
‘Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach’, (17 Mar 2018), The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election?CMP=share_btn_link. ↩
‘Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans’, (27 Jan 2015), Wu Youyou, Michal Kosinski, and David Stillwell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (PNAS), vol.112 (4) 1036-1040. ↩
‘Who knows what about me? A Children’s Commissioner report into the collection and sharing of children’s data’, (8th Nov 2018), The Children’s Commissioner for England, https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publication/who-knows-what-about-me/. ↩