The latest Ofcom Communications Market Report 2018 reveals the extent of the UK’s connectedness to mobile devices and what it describes as ‘a decade of digital dependence’. A fifth of British adults now spend more than 40 hours a week online, and we check our phones every 12 minutes. There is indeed cause for concern: around a third of people say they feel either cut off or lost without the internet if they can’t get online. They find it ‘stressful’. Half of all adults say their life would be boring if they couldn’t access the internet. What should technology companies make of all this?
There’s a growing awareness about excessive smartphone use and its potentially harmful impact on mental health, particularly among young people. New research efforts are beginning to sketch out social media’s effects on stress, sleep quality, self-esteem, relationships, loneliness and other areas. Psychologist Jean Twenge describes an increase in teen depression corresponding with technology use. Other studies reveal a similar correlation between excessive phone use and depression and anxiety, and questions are also being raised about how smartphone use could be linked to ADHD.
Tech vendors are starting to pay attention. As of last week, Apple, Google, Facebook and Instagram all offer digital wellness controls to allow users to review how many hours they’ve spent, limit notification frequency and block access to specific apps for ‘downtime’. Awareness is a good first step, and it’s encouraging that we’re at least starting to get some visibility about how we’re using these devices.
The story won’t end here, and big tech will ultimately face a dilemma in balancing responsibility over revenue. As the FT writes, companies could suffer when their business models and shareholders’ confidence rely on consumers spending more time online. They can only go so far to limit users’ time online without it hurting advertising revenues. Companies need to consider more deeply how their technology can solve problems.
Fight fire with fire
The answer to this dilemma could lie in not just limiting our exposure to technology, but reinventing our relationship to it. As artificial intelligence and data analytics becomes more sophisticated, tech companies could look towards meaningful engagement with users at the right time with an emphasis on quality over quantity. AI is redefining personalisation to the point that the modern marketer will answer four questions: “Who? What? When? How?” at an individual level and at each interaction. AI can help identify what those right times are and offer relevancy so that users aren’t forced to stay continuously connected.
Tech companies of all sizes and sectors must stay heavily involved in the debate around mental health – especially as research studies continue to stack on either side, for and against them. Equally, it’s early days and we don’t yet know just how far technology and social media are affecting our minds. As Dr. Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary writes, if smartphones aren’t yet proven to be a direct cause (not correlation) of teenagers’ mental health struggles, “their use might instead be a crucial way in which these struggles are expressed”.
Researchers for Microsoft (client) surveyed people and analysed their Twitter profiles for depressive language, linguistic style, engagement and emotion. They developed from this a classifier that can accurately predict depression before it causes symptoms in seven out of 10 cases. Likewise, researchers from Harvard and Vermont Universities analysed 166 people’s Instagram photos to create a similar tool with the same success rate. Through this we can start to understand that technology can either harm or help the efforts to tackle mental health concerns in society, depending on how we use it.
The long haul
None of this is as simple as just spending less time connected. As we come to understand how our minds and bodies work in the era of ‘digital dependence’ and beyond, better AI and data analytics could drive technology and social platforms to become an enabler of good and support people in need. Mental health and wellbeing will continue to draw the public’s attention, and those companies that can recognise the long-term value of prioritising their users’ wellbeing will win the public’s trust.