The Price of Digital Obsession

The Price of Digital Obsession

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

*Ravi Kumar Pillai

Transformational changes impact not only the way we go about our daily chores or carry out business activities. They change the way we think, behave and aspire. While technological advances have made our lives easier, they do present a host of issues and concerns which have serious implications for the wellness of our society. A glance at news headlines in recent years would make us wonder about our ability (or the lack of it) to manage ourselves successfully through transitions of our times.

‘Science Alert’, a science news website published an interesting report in June 2019 about Australian researchers finding evidence that young people were prone to growing bony protrusions at the base of their skulls, right above the neck. They linked this to strain in the neck due to prolonged use of mobile phones and the consequent adaption of our skeletal system.

Hardly a week after that startling report raised curiosity and discomfort around the globe, the news site came up with an editor’s note that there could be a potential conflict of interest that wasn't flagged in the earlier report. The source of the news was apparently an online store for posture-correcting pillows. The allegation of motivated planting of report was being investigated. Irrespective of the veracity of the incident, digitalization has serious behavioral, health and wellness implications for the society.

A discussion of behavioral impact of digital lifestyle would cover the cognitive, interpersonal and emotional dimensions. We are living in a society where information is power. Opinionated and emotional decisions are potential roadblocks to success. Concepts, methods and strategic skill-sets are undergoing constant change; those who do not update their domain expertise would find it increasingly difficult to be replacement-proof.

Cognitive capabilities and social competence are more critical now than ever before. However, a fall-out of the digital advancement and its impact on work/life habits is that competencies like attention and memory are at risk. So are the essential life skills such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional intelligence. Algorithms seem to overshadow our inherent critical thinking, analytical and problem-solving abilities.

Proliferation of mobile devices and an insatiable appetite for electronic screens of all sizes are a universal trend. Extended exposure to smartphones, video games and screen time in general are likely to adversely affect memory, attention, reading skills and cognition. Habitual multi-tasking reduces sharpness and dexterity of the mind according to some studies. In extreme cases, it can lead to Attention Deficiency/Hyperactive Disorder especially among children and adolescents.

Texting encourages shortening of words as well as skipping grammar and spelling accuracy. Pedagogy research reveals that students who take notes online or use recordings to access classroom inputs in general fare worse than those who take down physical notes when it came to examinations. Core skills like linguistic capabilities and numerical skills tend to be neglected in the digitally enabled society.

When was the last time you wrote a letter the old way? Your emotion laced words oozing through the tip of the pen, writing the address with nostalgic remembrance of the golden past and then walking to the street-corner pillar-box to give it an affectionate bye?

The “I-me-myself” attitude of the millennial generation has had profound influence on their social skills. There is less face-to-face interaction, increased inactivity, poor in-person communication skills, and rising indifference or even distrust among people. Studies on teen-age behavior speculate that the instant gratification that teens get from their digital devices makes it hard for them to control impulsive responses. The new society is so individualistic that there is an urgent need to consciously build social and emotional competence, vital for holistic success in life.

A worrying behavioral fallout of digitalization is the development of addictive tendency. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is defined as problematic, compulsive use of the internet that results in significant impairment of an individual's faculties in various life domains over prolonged period of time. IAD is on way to be recognized as a standard psychological disorder. As a first step, online video gaming has already been brought into the list of mental health issues needing professional intervention.

On-line games, apps and selfies provide the glue to addiction in many cases. Innumerable instances have been reported from around the globe of young people risking lives in their attempts to shoot craze selfies. The case of a young couple - Vishnu Viswanathan and Meenakshi Moorthy - hailing from Kerala who fell to death from the viewing deck at the top of the 800 ft high cliff at Yosemite, in the United States in October 2018 while attempting a selfie caught world-wide attention. In the six-year period 2011-2017, 259 selfie related accidental deaths were reported around the globe; out of them 137 deaths (52% of all reported cases) occurred in India, by far the highest number for any country. The mean age of selfie victims was 23 years!

In the classic Pavlovian experiment scientists offered food to a dog at the ringing of a bell. The experiment was repeated many times. Subsequently when the bell was sounded but without offering food simultaneously, the dog nevertheless salivated because the animal associated the bell with food.

This concept finds application in the development of ‘dopamine’ inducing digital stimuli like the ‘ping’ sound used in social media apps. Dopamine is a neurohormone that is released by the hypothalamus, a key part of our brain.

Vital brain functions that affect mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration, and motor control are influenced by the levels of dopamine in a person's body. We hear a ‘ping’ (the single bell) and a reinforcer is provided - the receipt of an email or text. Our mind makes a connection.

Over time people have developed a compulsive urge to check their mobile phones at the sound of the ping. Developers of addictive games, some of which have become outrageous online killers like the infamous ‘blue whale’, play upon the tendency of human mind to make instinctive (but many times irrational) connections. The apparent addiction to Tiktok, the social media video-app for creating and sharing short personal videos is arguably another example of the dopamine effect in action.

Compulsive use of mobile phones while driving kills many drivers globally – more than even by drunken driving. Drivers using mobile phones are approximately 4 times more likely to be involved in crash than others.

Digital technologies may also have pronounced effects on our physical health and wellness. Many posture-related health issues have been traced to possible impact of skewed digital habits. Prolonged sitting and staring at a screen can induce back- pain, shoulder-pains and pain in joints.

Health experts have coined the term, “Computer Vision Syndrome” (CVS) to indicate a wide range of vision related fallouts of digital work/life practices. Around 60% of people who work on computers have reported some sort of vision-related discomfiture. The possible symptoms associated with CVS range from eye strain and dryness of eyes to headaches, blurred vision and photophobia. Continuous viewing of digital screens can induce or aggravate vision-related issues.

Like vision, the adverse impact of digital devices on hearing has also been well documented. Today, most devices can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, an amount so high that hearing loss can occur after more than one hour and fifteen minutes of exposure through headphones. According to the American Osteopathic Association, you should only use headphones at levels up to 60 percent of the maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes, as anything more can be detrimental to your hearing.

A CISCO-sponsored study in India found that over 95% of young people look at their smart-phone as their first daily routine upon waking up. Another global study found that in the age group of 18-30 from 18 countries, three in four check their phones in bed. Over 40% of respondents indulged in texting, emailing and checking social media during meals. 60% of them said they could not resist checking their smartphones all too frequently.

There is need for moderation and discipline in using digital devices. We should be able to leverage the tremendous opportunities offered by digital accessibility to enhance our knowledge, skills and interests without becoming slaves to technology. Irrespective of all the talk about smart technologies, we the people are the real masters and we should not give up our discretion on when and how often to use the access devices.

Being aware of the potential risks to our mental, physical and social well-being due to excessive indulgence in digital technologies could help us craft a healthier work-life-balance. In this age of humanoid robots, we need to ensure that we do not become robotized humans in our work and life. Take a deep breath and ask yourselves, “Whose life is it anyway?”

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is Chief Executive Officer and Principal Consultant, Cherrypick India Consulting and Business Solutions Private Limited