Time to Switch Off

Research shows technostress levels are rising steeply in our always-on world, tech companies either need to help people unhook or innovate to be human friendly and less disruptive.

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One of the interesting features of visiting old buildings is doorways so low you have to stoop to get through them. Suits of armour show that fierce champions of past battles were so short by today’s standards that you have to wonder if they fought on Shetland ponies? The average height in Europe today is around 1.75m. Studies of skeletons show it was similar a thousand years ago at 1.72m. But from the middle ages up to the 17th century adults shrank to only 1.66m. The average height of a 13-year-old boy today.

Why was this? Diet appears to be the consensus. This when the great reliance on grain started — porridge, bread, gruel. Plus every man woman and child drank alcohol with almost every meal. There are many wellbeing parallels with today’s sugar rich, over processed diets and the epidemic of obesity. But the broader point I want to make is this: let’s not assume that something normal, universally adopted and largely unavoidable is actually good for us. Along with those poor diets, poor sanitation and the crowded cities, the middle ages are famous for devastating plagues and the disfigurement captured vividly by Breughel. People were not as hard worked as generally supposed (religious festivals meant they had far more time off than we do). But they weren’t thriving. Far from it.

Today invasive information technology has become a universal fact of everyday life. Deloitte’s Mobile Consumer Report for 2016 shows that even more people in emerging markets have a smart phone (81%) than in developed countries (76%). The mobile phone, email, addictive games and social platforms, boxed sets… not to mention work. The sheer amount of time spent staring at screens is staggering. According to Nielsen the US adult’s total screen time per day grew from 9.5 hours in 2015 to 10.5 hours in 2016. And this has become normal. Just as — you could argue — watching TV was normal for a previous generation. Albeit 7 hours a day (in the 1980s; Putnam) not 10.5 hours. But there is a big difference between then and now. This new generation of technology — unlike television — is stressing us out. And stress (from tech and many other sources) may be having as at least as big an impact on our wellbeing today as bad diet.

Technostress is defined in academic studies (Rosen and Weil, 1997) as “any negative impact on attitudes, thoughts, behaviours, or body physiology that is caused by technology”. What is startling (and has gone almost unreported) is the growth of Technostress. Early studies found low numbers of people reporting any technostress; 35% in 1992 and 42% in 1995. Recent studies have found staggering increeases with the average (of 6 separate academic studies in 2013) being around 85%. Clearly it must be affecting people of all ages. In fact a study in 2015 (Mahwhinney) found Technostress was 35% higher among the under 25’s compared to over 25’s. Which would make sense if the more you are hooked up to modern ‘always on’ networks, the more stressed you are. So that ‘Digital Natives’ are just like people who live closer to the leaky nuclear power station.

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The growth in Technostress is so steep that it has to have some simple causes. A key one appears to be the prolonged effect of being ‘always on’. Cortisol (stress hormone) levels and blood pressure have been shown to rise when subjects are even available to receive emails. A study by University of Columbia showed that (in a split sample and control group) those who had phone alerts switched on were significantly more hyperactive and less able to concentrate. We all know what it is like to be constantly interrupted by work messages, notifications, alerts and how hard it can be to switch off as a result. One survey that got traction in social media reported situations where American adults had checked their phone messages: 95% admitted doing this during social gatherings, 70% at work and (the stat that launched a thousand shares) 10% had done so during sex!

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There is a growing move to ring fence parts of our life. The French government has followed a number of tech firms in insisting workers have the right to disconnect and demanding that companies limit out of hours email. Ariana Huffington’s recent book on sleep and her thriveglobal.com startup put the emphasis on safeguarding your sleeping hours and the periods adjoining those. Dolmio’s famous (wifi and phone signal blocking) smart pepper pot puts the emphasis on family time — as did campaigns to put phones in a box and enjoy together time, like American plate company Dixie’s #DarkForDinner.

But the broader question is this. Will we go on accepting our lives being stunted by technology? Because we love the upsides. (Keeping in touch, ready access to ‘how to’ knowledge, box set binges…). Or because the technologies are so lodged into the patterns of our daily existence that we cant disengage without becoming hermits. I suspect the answer to that question depends on just how unwell they make us. Stress is reported by 78% of American adults to be resulting in physical symptoms. And by 73% as causing psychological symptoms. (Consider the prevalence of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome; a factor in 30% of US adults avoiding gluten and the growth of gut healthy foods). 33% report themselves as living with extreme stress. And fully half say their stress increased in the last five years. (American Institute of Stress). Technology is just one factor of course, and most have more to do with the relentless character of modern economies. But isn’t technology a potential scapegoat? The ‘next sugar’.

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There is another possibility. We always could redesign technology to be positively good for people. To measure itself against fitting innate human behaviours and preferences; not stressing us out by keeping us on edge, not being frustrating to learn and use; being responsive, attentive, even a little discreet. At one point in history cars did not feature seatbelts. Their introduction reduced injuries in crashes by around 50–60% according to studies in the 1960s by Volvo. This could be the new frontier in human friendly design. Previously alienating technology was made palatable through a graphical interface and numerous advances in UX. You could compare that with making food yummy by adding sugar fat and salt. Now technology could be made more ‘good for you’ — mirroring the growth of paleo, free from, organic, seasonal, local, farm to fork… generally the food our bodies evolved to expect and to thrive on.

Okay enough. I’ve spent a whole saturday emailing people about my new book, slavishly checking social media, fielding messages and writing. Enough technostress already. Time to switch off, for real!

For more on this and many other modern wellbeing trends check out my new book https://unbound.com/books/better