In this edition we look into the relationship between attention, digital usage and the burgeoning set of digital tools that are helping people gain more control over how they’re using connected devices.
Digital's broken relationship with attention
Attention is finite. Many scientific studies exist that support people only have so much of it. The more attention is divided, the worse we become at completing tasks. And, in task-switching, part of the prior task lingers over the new task one’s attention has now been turned to - this is known as attention residue. But lots of digital usage is defined by multitasking. We often flit between platforms and tabs at speed in an attempt to complete tasks or as we go in search of information and entertainment. This could be a problem…
Most digital products are designed to try and maximise their usage. Digital product features are designed to make products ’sticky’, like social media feedback loops such as likes, comments and shares. Push notifications also help to do this by directing our attention to events or tasks to pull us back into a platform as do email, SMS and messaging apps. So a tension exists between people only having so much attention to assign (to things like work tasks, family, passions etc.), how engrained digital technology has become within our lives (compounded further through COVID-19), and the techniques digital products use to keep us active. Active users are what fund digital products to sustain their existence for the most part - either through subscription fees and / or advertising revenues to reach them. The dominant economy drives the conflict.
Excessive digital usage and its effect on mental health
There’s been lots of press coverage on the adverse effects of too much digital usage, with social media often highlighted for its negative effects on mental health. There’s lots of studies that link high social media usage with anxiety and depression, particularly amongst younger audiences. The concept of ’doom-scrolling’ is now part of many people’s vocabulary and acknowledges something that most of us will identify with: that much digital usage is a huge waste of time and attention that could be dedicated to more useful and fulfilling things. As Marketers, we all have a responsibility to ask ourselves if we're using digital in ways that are respectful of peoples' attention before we create digital products and digital content to publish on platforms.
Digital products that help minimise digital usage
It’s been interesting to watch the growth in digital products being created to raise people’s awareness of their digital usage and in some cases, actively encourage them to disconnect all together. Since Apple introduced Screen Time as part of iOS in 2018, there’s been tools emerging that help people wrestle back some control from their devices. Space helps its users become more conscious of how they’re using their phone; through tracking the time spent whilst actively using it, how many times it’s unlocked and how usage differs by day parts and days of the week. It also enables goal setting so users can decide how much they want to use their device. True to digital product form, Space uses gamification techniques like unlocking achievement awards and encouraging users to form groups to try and increase its usage.
There’s a collection of open source digital wellbeing experiments from Google that also aim to give people a greater awareness of how (and how much) they’re using their connected devices and provide control thereof. ScreenHive, Screen Stopwatch and Activity Bubbles all provide different visual representations of usage whilst Anchor draws someone’s attention to whether they’re caught in a doom-scroll. Envelope greatly limits the capabilities of a smartphone to basic connectivity, whereas Paper Phone goes further and creates a printable version of key info from someone’s phone that’s likely to be needed on a given day so they can disconnect from it altogether. If that sounds too terrifying, Desert Island encourages people to select a limited number of apps and restricts usage to only these.
A conscious approach to digital is a sustainable approach to digital
Society’s usage of and growing dependence on digital technology and the affect on people’s wellbeing is a complex and multifaceted issue, though I expect few would disagree that there’s not an issue here that warrants genuine concern and decisive action. What’s harder to discern, is who should ultimately be accountable for society’s wellbeing with regards to how digital technology is used? Should this sit with governments, technology businesses or individuals themselves? I expect most societies would be hostile to restrictions being placed on digital usage, either by governments and / or service providers, so perhaps the most sustainable way for the digital industry to future proof is by designing products that are more mindful of intended end users’ wellbeing, and through better educating society on digital wellbeing and providing actionable techniques so that it can be maintained.