What if screen time was regulated in the same way as smoking and drinking? What if we discovered that constant connectivity makes us distracted, antisocial shells with bad eyesight and chronic insomnia? What if phones, tablets and computers came with a health warning – enjoy responsibly? These were just some of the questions being pondered at a scenario-planning workshop I recently attended.
During my last holiday, I became aware that my tablet was gathering dust in a corner, I hadn’t checked Facebook for days and my sleep was deep and uninterrupted. Thanks to my digital diet I lost a ton of stress and an inch off my eye strain!
Back at work, it wasn’t long before I experienced an annoying twitch in my left eye, lower back pain and difficulty sleeping. Was all this due to my sedentary return to screen addiction?
Some believe that the relentless pace of digital innovation is having a detrimental impact on society. Such concerns are bound to be voiced more frequently as the techno-machine continues its exponential journey. 65% of Gen X, 60% of Gen Y and 58% of baby boomers agree that they, “Sometimes feel the need to get away from phone calls, emails and text messages and switch off”. This demonstrates that the need to escape our digital lives shows remarkably little age effect.
We can expect more leisure providers to market themselves as tech-free refuges as more concerns are raised about the dangers of screen addiction. The Abu Ghosh restaurant outside Jerusalem offers a 50% discount to customers who switch off their phones while they dine. Chef Alexandre Gauthier has banned the practice of ‘food selfies’ at his Michelin-starred restaurant in France because the food gets cold whilst the photos are taken and shared online. He’s not against social media but, he says, “I would like people to be living in the present”. Hear hear!
Inevitably, numerous commercial offers attempt to address the need for digital downtime. Ironically, many are digital in nature. Digital Detox is an app that irrevocably disables your Android phone for the period of time you specify. FocalFilter does the same for distracting websites. Unplugged Weekend is a tech-free event set in the countryside with a ‘group phone-surrendering ceremony’ on the Friday evening, stress management tips, yoga and live music. Relaxed participants are reunited with their devices on Sunday evening.
Research last year found that 16% of children send texts and 18% use social media in bed almost every night.2 Having not grown up as digital natives themselves, experts and parents have no way of knowing how excessive screen use in early life will affect children’s development. One thing we do know is that the blue light emitted by digital screens induces wakefulness and as such is detrimental to a good night’s sleep.
And it’s not just the kids! Nowadays work doesn’t stop when the employee leaves the office. Famous for its 35-hour week adopted in 1998, France introduced rules in April 2014 to protect people in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside office hours. Daimler in Germany simply deletes any emails sent to staff who are on holiday, and the German employment ministry has banned managers from emailing staff out-of-hours to help prevent burnout. So is it time we learned from our Euro cousins?
With close to one-fifth of UK government spending (around £140bn) now devoted to health3, it’s unsurprising that new regulatory initiatives underscore personal responsibility in health matters. It’s no longer socially acceptable to flagrantly disregard health warnings.
As consumer-citizens learn to live ever-more moderated lives in relation to food, fitness, alcohol and tobacco, we can envision a future in which the moderation of everything, including screen time, becomes a social norm with mass appeal.
So is it time for tech companies to proactively encourage digital dieting? Just as the iWatch promises to remind us to move if we sit for too long, should our devices prompt us to disconnect when we use them non-stop?
The confluence of fashion and technology could offer the balanced diet we so crave. New wearable devices, designed around more passive-use cases, promise to free us from diverting our attention towards our phones. This casual connectivity riffs on the sensibility of staying connected on your own terms.
British tech jeweller, Kovert, tackles this head-on, claiming, “To live a Kovert lifestyle is to live in the moment”. Pieces include rings, bracelets and stones, which vibrate according to personalised notification profiles. Similarly, the stylish MEMI smartbracelet only alerts you to calls from the people who matter most. Announced in 2014, Android Wear (Google’s operating system for wearable technologies) promises smart, context-aware updates. No more searching for information; instead, Android Wear integrates Google Now technology and mobile notifications into new form factors, offering ‘information that moves with you’.
Wearables also have the advantage that they can track your biometric data to understand when you are most receptive (or otherwise) to a notification. Once technology knows when not to disturb you, it will be far less intrusive. In November 2014, a survey by sparks & honey confirmed the notion that Gen Z (those born after 1995) is online all the time. Around the same time, a Northeastern University study came to a similar conclusion – for example, 49% of teens get their news online while only 21% get it from TV. So far, so unremarkable. In a surprising twist, however, these studies also suggest that Gen Z is becoming less enamoured with technology. 61% know somebody who’s been cyber-bullied or -stalked. Only 15% would rather interact with their friends online compared to 66% who prefer to do so in person. And only 38% buy most of their purchases online, while 43% favour high-street shopping.
It seems the technology revolution that took their parents by storm may not be so enthralling to those who’ve grown up as digital natives. So if the kids switch off altogether, are we ready for that future? Now there’s a scenario-planning exercise we may just need to explore…