How harmful is technology?
According to Global Web Index, we spend an average of 6 hours and 49 minutes on the internet and 3 hours on Social Media each day. At the same time, 64% of internet users are concerned about corporate use of personal data, and 33% think that technology makes life more complicated. When it comes to Social Media, people are most frustrated by bullying and discrimination, ads, and lack of actual human connection. Research by the US Census Bureau shows that longer screen time, especially at a young age, is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression.
So, how harmful is technology? Quite harmful, it seems. For something with such pronounced frustrations and negative side effects, we sure spend an awful lot of our time there. Why?
The secret of habits
First off, because we grew quite dependent. What is the first thing you do in the morning? If the answer is checking your phone, you are not alone. Second, habits come in – we turn off the alarm in the morning. Then we start scrolling. That tiny red dot makes us curious about what we are missing. Day by day, we built those solid, easy habits that are now hard to abandon.
With those insights – how harmful is technology? Technology seems to be pretty damaging to our health, and not truly meaningful in actually serving this connection it so often promises.
But is this technology’s fault?
Is connection through technology always bad?
Let’s look at another side of this picture: some people depend on technology for the basic functions of their lives. Take it from Stephen Hawking: ‘Technology has had a huge impact on my life. I speak through a computer. I have benefited from assisted technology to give me a voice that my illness has taken away.’ It seems that in some cases, technology can be rehabilitative, accessible, and truly connecting.
Now, what about the effect of screen time? Yes, too much screen time (and especially social media use) seems to be negatively related to wellbeing, but a 2019 study shows that the effect is rather small. A previous study shows moderate use of technology being rather beneficial, and yielding better results than no screen time at all. So somewhere in there seems to be a positive use case for digital tools, which makes sense: if we don’t use them at all, we forego a lot of connection opportunities.
So, how harmful is technology? Not sure. Why is it that some forms of technological connection are beneficial to our health and wellbeing, and others are not? The secret lies in what we are optimizing for – and more importantly, who pays.
Which outcomes are we optimizing for?
Let’s look a bit closer at the aspects of technology that we generally highlight as damaging and dangerous. Most of them have something in common: they optimize for a maximum of screen time and connection – to devices, not to other people. Why is screen time so important?
The advertising model
Screen time is important as it is needed to show more ads – that’s right, that thing that scores second on top Social Media frustrations. We experience ads basically everywhere – in our social feeds, on websites, in search results.
The advertising model is nothing new. I grew up with TV shows neatly cut up between lengthy advertising blocks, so I know what I’m talking about. Advertising has been around in newspapers, print magazines and TV channels for almost as long as those channels exist. The model is simple: bring a consumer engaging content, and use the time they spend in front of a screen (or magazine) to also put in place advertising.
What makes digital advertising different?
1. It coexists with personal connection & communication
Unlike TVs or magazines whose primary purpose is to consume content, most digital channels provide us with new forms of personal connection and communication. ‘The internet arrived promising us connection at the very moment when all the wider forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.’ says Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections. As we increasingly use these channels for our personal contacts, advertising becomes increasingly interlaced with our personal connection and communication.
2. They bring speed, efficiency and unlimited contact points
No other solution can reach so many people so immediately in such a short amount of time. This makes advertising through digital channels extremely fast, efficient and cost-effective.
3. They open up advertising to a much larger audience
The internet, Social Media and other apps have reached virtually every corner of our planet. And as that works so efficient and cost effective, advertising also becomes cheaper – and thereby more accessible to smaller businesses. This means that not only the target audience of ads grows exponentially, but also the group interested in placing them.
4. They bring data – and with it the means to measure and optimize
With magazine or TV ads, it was quite difficult to say whether an ad was effective or not. I might have bought a magazine, but no one could really tell if I looked at the ad of the nice coat on page 15. If I went to a store and bought that coat a week later, this event could not be directly linked. So the only thing that could be measured is how sales overall are affected after placement of an ad.
If the same journey happens online, it is much easier to build the exact connection – what I looked at, where I clicked, how many times I came back to admire that coat, and if I finally bought it. We will know at which time of the day, year and month I respond better to these kinds of ads, and how that works for other people, clustering me in a group and learning more about me and others in the process.
All of this makes online advertising an extremely effective and growing market that everyone wants to play a part in. But what about those frustrated users?
Is the advertising model sustainable?
Back in 2007, market research firm Yankelovich estimated that an average person would see around 5.000 ads or brand exposures per day. Current estimates come in at 4.000 – 10.000 per day. Along with the number of ads rise the number of ad blockers – showing a four-fold increase in ad-blocked devices from 2018 to 2019.
In the study “How brands annoy fans”, 88% out of 2.000 respondents indicated that a negative advertising experience would make them think different about a brand – and could possibly lead to the choice of not doing business with that brand.
This all sounds quite annoying – or, as Johann Hari puts it: ‘Advertising (…) is a form of mental pollution.’ This is exactly where many of those negative mental health effects come into play. So: advertising seems not great for mental health, and frustrating for people. But as a marketer, I want to connect to my users in a happy place. So what do I do?
We focus on building the wrong habits
The key problem I see with the advertising model is that it so strongly depends on building user habits that users don’t want to build.
I have yet to come across a person that is happy about their new scrolling habit, and raves about spending one more hour each day on their phone. Then to sell more, we should encourage them to make some changes. Changes they have no time or headspace to build in a sustainable way because – you guessed it – they were too busy scrolling. That sounds fun.
Our devices have a great impact on our lives by modeling and shaping behaviour. Technology is extremely effective in building habits. But which habits we build is up to us. The problem is not technology – the problem is that most solutions we currently use are optimized for the advertising model. Because of this, we focus on building habits that increase screen time, so we see more ads.
What if we instead use the amazing insights of technological development and behavioural science, and apply them to encourage outcomes people actually want?
We could encourage healthy behaviour. We could free up people’s time to build real connection and real-world impact. Brands can still play a big role in this. They can sponsor, encourage, reward – and celebrate our wins.
Technology is just as harmful as the business model
Are the problems outlined in the beginning really problems of technology? Not necessarily. The problem is not THAT we use technology, it’s HOW we use it.
So again, how harmful is technology? It depends. Yes, technology can shape behaviour – but its function is a supporting one. The harm lies in the business model. So the key to better solutions is not to abandon technology, but to build impactful business models that do not depend on unhealthy consumer behaviour. Instead, they should allow people to grow and thrive. Because one thing is clear:
If profit depends on unhealthy behaviour, there will always be unhealthy behaviour.
Or, as Stephen Hawking would say:
‘Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.’