It’s summer time and the living is (hopefully) easy. Thoughts turn to holidays and happy days, away from the world of work. For many people around the world, the summer break will also mean a hiatus from digital technology — putting the smartphone to one side and laying off the social media. The “digital detox” seems to be becoming as integral a part of the holiday routine as a good book or a new outfit. But why is this happening now and, as digital technology promises to deliver even more immersive consumer experiences, what does the future hold?
Too much of a good thing…
Many of us appear to have a troubled relationship with our smartphones. In the United Kingdom, half of all adults admit to being ‘completely hooked’ on their smartphones, with one third using their phones for at least five hours a day. At the same time, 62 percent of UK adults say they ‘hate’ how much time they spend on their phone. In Russia and the United States, nearly half of all consumers report that they feel lost without their smartphone.[i]
Our love-hate relationship with smartphones and devices more generally may sound somewhat trivial, but it has serious implications. The problem of internet addiction is increasingly well understood and has become a public health issue. The first inpatient facility for treating internet addiction in the United States opened in 2013. China has opened 300 teenage bootcamps imposing a strict digital detox to deal with increasing problems of teen internet addiction. And the Nightingale Psychiatric Hospital in London is the first UK centre to offer a dedicated internet addiction outpatient programme.
Switching off to recharge
Given our growing awareness of digital addiction and its health impacts (such as depression, sleep deprivation and an inability to concentrate), it is perhaps not surprising that many people feel the need to take a break from digital technology. Dentsu Aegis Network research shows that across a range of countries, between about one quarter and one third of consumers admit they often switch off their mobile phone to escape (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Many people around the world feel the need to get away from personal technology
% consumers agreeing that they often switch off their mobile phone to escape (2016)
A growth industry
Capitalising on the increasing popularity of the digital detox, the leisure industry has been quick to cater to the needs of small-screen addicts. Holiday companies and hotels are marketing themselves as enablers of a digital-free environment and charging a premium for the pleasure of removing your devices at check-in. Guests report a range of almost immediate benefits, from improved concentration levels to enhanced overall well-being. Interestingly, many also report that switching off devices themselves would not be as effective as someone else doing it for them. Technology is also catching up, with a range of apps such as Freedom and Digital Detox offering people the ability to disable their internet access for specified periods of time.
The rise of immersive experiences
The challenge for businesses and society more broadly is that we are only just scratching the surface of engaging experiences through digital technology. If you think it’s hard to switch off your smartphone now, what about when you have to switch off the delightful wonder of virtual reality and confront the mundane rigmarole of everyday life? Or curb your use of augmented reality, which games such as Pokémon GO have shown to be so incredibly addictive? The rise of immersive consumer experiences is a huge opportunity for brands to connect with people in more meaningful ways. But at the same time could potentially open a Pandora’s Box of health and social impacts that we are only beginning to understand.
Whose responsibility is it anyway?
Evidently, more work is needed to understand how use of digital technology changes the way human beings think and operate. At Dentsu Aegis Network, for example, we are collaborating with MIT Media Lab to understand the neurological impact of virtual reality. But ultimately brands will have a number of tricky questions to resolve — perhaps most fundamentally, what responsibility should they bear for the potentially negative health impacts of digital consumption? At what point does free will end and duty of care begin? Does the solution lie in education or intervention? As the digital economy becomes even more ingrained and pervasive, shaping our lives in ways we have yet to imagine, these questions will take on new urgency. So let us know your thoughts!
Article written by Tim Cooper, Global Head of Strategic Communications, Dentsu Aegis Network.
[i] Dentsu Aegis Network, proprietary consumer survey.