The hidden truth about our digital addiction in a ‘real-time’ world

by Joe Pelissier on March 17, 2014

A smiling digitally dependent girl asleep on her laptopWhen I listen to many of the people I work with, it is blindingly obvious we are not in control of the digital world we inhabit. And unless we learn how to take control we are in for a nasty surprise, especially our children.

We are not well equipped to live in a ‘real-time’ world which is why we are starting to see an increase in internet addiction amongst the young. In China, Taiwan and Korea there are now specialist treatment centres for teenagers and in America ‘internet-use disorder’ is set to be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

For the past year I have been running a course at the European Parliament called Digital Communication: Tools and Tactics. Whilst it aims to give those who work in ‘communications’ an insight into how various brands use digital technologies, it is proving an invaluable way for me to learn how others perceive and use digital media.

The ‘real-time’ world

The explosion of ‘real-time’ communication over the past 12 months coupled with our desire to record every hour of our life via Instagram, Pinterest or Snapchat, suggests that our digital world continues to get faster and faster. It’s now impossible not to walk down a high street without someone bumping into you whilst texting and as soon as a plane touches down everyone reaches for their phone to check email or Facebook. I now regularly see men at the urinals reading their mobile…

Connectivity is a wonderful thing but as Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam recently pointed out, it’s now the Sword of Damocles hanging over us. Whilst it’s revolutionised millions of lives, many people are incapable of discrimination or of knowing when to switch-off.  Value is increasingly measured in terms of the brilliance of a Tweet or their latest set of photos.

Neuroplasticity - synapses in the brainResearch has shown that our brains are starting to re-wire themselves with all this constant connectivity. It’s to do with neuroplasticity and the synapses that hook everything up. In our desire for instant gratification and the stimulus of so many types of media, our poor brains are having to work especially hard. Not so much the young who fly across applications with alarming speed but their elders who process stuff more slowly. Even if you are only 30, you’re slow compared to a 15-year old.

It may all be relative but because everyone is now connected and in the business of connecting, few stop to question their behaviour. There is also a naive acceptance that this is now the norm and that if you don’t ‘get it’, you are behind with the times. School teachers are the worst at peddling this belief, falling back on the cliched refrain: ‘Well, it’s a digital world they are growing up in”. Parents are equally hopeless as they are trying to get their heads around something their children understand intuitively better than they do.

There is a chasm of expectation between growing up in a broadband world, our having had to adapt to it year by year and then accepting it for what it is without questioning it.

A brief history of media communication

Media convergenceOne of the reasons we don’t know how to handle digital media is that it has crept up on us so quickly. Prior to 1447 and the invention of print, all knowledge was memorised.  No much happened over the next 350 years until a new way of printing came along in 1796 in the form of lithography. Over the next 100 years, up to 1895, new media evolved at a slow but steady pace. We were gently introduced to photo-engraving, telegraphy, photography, the telephone, radio and finally cinema. Periodic new media our brains were able to cope with.

From 1895 to 1948 it started to speed up with the invention of television, the tape-recorder and the computer.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, the digital world started to move with alarming speed. Only six years after this, in 1995, the launch of the browser Netscape Navigator made internet access a reality for the masses. By 2003 we could experience the convergence of text, sound and video –  all on one screen. And by 2013 we had added to this the explosion of smart phones, social media and an obsession with photographing the minutiae of our lives .

It’s no wonder we struggle to cope – we are living through the biggest communication revolution since the invention of Gutenburg’s printing press. Historically, we grew up and evolved with different types of media. Not any more. Ker-pow! In the space of 2o years it has suddenly smacked us in the face. Quite literally many of us are drowning in 0s and 1s.

That means we have to learn how to educate ourselves and our children in how to use digital media appropriately and responsibly. MRI scans of Chinese internet addicts have revealed disruptions to connections in the nerve fibres responsible for emotion, decision making and self control. How many times have you been in a traffic jam and seen someone on their phone? How often have you have experienced your child turn into Gollum as you ask them to swtich off their ‘precious’. How many times an hour do you constantly check your email?

My digital survey

Social media addict syringesDuring the training sessions that influenced this article, I often ask my attendees about their media usage before the start of the course. The results may not be very scientific but they are revealing.

  • 50% have been on Facebook before 9 a.m
  • 50% have sent a text
  • 30% have scanned an article on an online newspaper (very few admit to reading it)
  • 10% have been on Instagram or sent a Tweet
  • 10% have watched a video

When I ask them how connected they are at the end of the day, I discover

  • 50% are online after 18.00
  • 30% after 22.00
  • 20% after 23.00

This random sample of Europeans is digitally connected from early in the day until very late at night  – without being consciously aware of it.

And what’s their biggest fear? Interestingly, it’s not being overwhelmed by technology but concern over their personal data, especially in relation to Facebook. It would appear that the America whistleblower, Edward Snowden has jolted many people into thinking much more carefully about their digital privacy and how companies use our data.

For our children this is massive. They are going to have to be much more data savvy than we have been over the past 10 – 15 years.

What are you going to do about it?

You probably use digital media without being aware of it. Most marketers know this which is why they will try to reach you via as many channels as possible. They know that if they give you a frequent digital tap on the shoulder and in a way that is engaging and relevant, at some point you will respond. Be thankful you live in Great Britain where the average big name brand Tweets Followers 36 times a week, whilst a comparable American brand will Tweet them 221 times.

As a consultant, I am encouraging my clients to use as many channels as possible but as an individual I try to teach myself restraint. I want to choose when and why I am connected and I want my children to learn how to do the same. To discriminate.

We are at the very early stages of living in a digital world and this means we have to start to learn how to master it. The price of failure will mean more people at the mercy of technology, an increasing number addicted to it and our data being used in ways we are unaware of. Parts of corporate Germany are already aware of this. Some companies are now switching off email servers after 17.00 and at the week-ends so that employees only work online during office hours. This demonstrates a sense of confidence in their business and a good understanding of the intrusive nature of technology.

All this forces us to ask how sustainable are all the digital channels we juggle? Is the rapid rise in Social Media going to lead to a correspondingly sudden decline  – like a share price? Or, will we experience sudden burn-out and crave simplicity? No one knows  – which is what makes it both frightening and exciting.

As individuals we need to start to be aware of how digitally dependent we are and the implications this has on us professionally and personally. As parents, we need to consider what growing up in a digitally connected world means – so that our children can manage it with confidence. Teachers especially are going to have to wise up. After all, most of them are teaching the next generation that is digitally smarter and faster than they are.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

PeteB March 20, 2014 at 1:43 am

A most interesting post, Joe.

I’m reminded of a somewhat tongue-in-cheek maxim that says that any technology that’s introduced to you before you are 30 years of age is exciting and will make your life better than it was before. Technology introduced to you after you are 30 years of age will be the downfall of human-kind.

I often lament that when I was growing up (chronologically, if not in maturity), we only had one television in the house at a time, and only had two during that 20 or so years; one black and white, and one colour. Today, if I don’t update to the latest television technology (which sometimes isn’t even backward-compatible! (digital vs. analogue)) the marketers tell me I’m missing out. I, for one, don’t call that progress, particularly now that I have to periodically turn off my sound bar and TV so that the voices and lips sync properly while I’m watching East Enders. I don’t recall that being a problem when I was growing up. I think this is true for a lot of digital media technologies we see today. As Graham Norton said about Romania in the last Eurovision, “…just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

I do have several social media accounts, but use them mostly for ‘lurking’ to see what others are doing if and when the need or urge takes me. Often I don’t go on to one or other for months at a time. And in setting those accounts up, I put in scant or incorrect demographic information: my cynical self warns me that that’s too much, although I do like being offered the chance to buy women’s compression stockings by the intelligent marketing software.

Being just north of 50 I don’t like the proliferation of must-be-a-member-of technologies (and pseudo reality entertainment like Strictly Come X Idoling On Ice et al.) I’m hopeful that the increasingly rapid hype-cycles of these things will see an equally rapid demise. I fear, sadly, that there’ll be a long line of new must-be-a-member-ofs and must-haves lined up to take their places.

The neuro-plasticity aspect is a concern – that could be a Pandora’s box that will lead us to who knows where – but equally alarming, I think, is one of personal contentment. It used to be that keeping up with the Jones’ extended to keeping your eyes open to the bottom of the street. Now people know what their friends, and their families, and their work colleagues, and their pets… are up to. And seemingly all of these are having better live than Simon Cowell (but probably DO have better hair).

Maybe I’m just bitter because I don’t feel I have a life that’s worth documenting, but I will force myself to be content with my four email accounts and two instant messaging programs.

admin March 20, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Hi Pete – maybe the most interesting observations come when one is north of 50?

I am a great lurker too – most people are with only 1% actively participating and 9% periodically getting involved. But what you write reminds me of someone who was recently told by his phone that it was time he stopped doing what he was doing because it was going to take him 15 minutes to get to his next meeting. The phone knew his exact location and had the next location to hand – as well as how long it would take him to walk there. On one level this guy was frightened that his phone knew so much about his physical location and on another delighted that it could be so supportive. However, this ‘advice’ happened without him requesting it.

Until I changed the settings, an advertiser has had great fun on Facebook showing me a picture of a coffin with a reminder that I will be 52 on my next birthday but that I can start to put 1.02p away each week so I am all paid up when the great day arrives. Funny on one level but in reality a gross invasion of my privacy.

Glad to hear that Eastenders is keeping you entertained down in Perth.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: