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How technology influences behaviour: the good, the bad and the selfie

Digital technology is undoubtedly a force in our world – for better or worse?

Elizabeth Dunn, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, has expressed her excitement at the world being brought to our fingertips by smartphones.  Although her lab has fervently sought to prove the benefits of smartphones, she has repeatedly found the negative impact of technology to be more convincing (see Monitor on Psychology, March 2017, cover story). Dunn found digital tools mess with our sleep, stress us out, and monopolise our attention.

The ugly side: addiction?

Through research done by Larry Rosen at California State University, the average smartphone user was found to suffer from severe anxiety in less than half an hour of separation from their phones – a figure that rises to ten minutes for heavy users.

It would seem that we’re addicted to our smartphones.  And what’s the cost?

Well, Dunn found that smartphone notifications had a negative impact our capacity to pay attention. Plus, checking your email during a meeting apparently has the same effect of three beers slugged, according to some.

Plus, despite more digital socializing, there is an element of our lives that we are increasingly missing out on – that is, the emotional and physical benefits of real contact in the three-dimensional world.

But I would say it’s how we use the technology that will dictate the impact it has on us, not the technology itself.

Reducing the frequency with which we check our emails was found to have a positive benefit on health, according to Dunn.

We now berate those who do not immediately reply to messages 24/7/365. The only excuse that people feel they can put forward is a dead battery.

The ability of smart watches to accept notifications has given a new meaning to the checking of our watches during work meetings – as we note with clarity the fact that the puppy just pooed on the living room rug and tend to ignore the less entertaining discussion of our company’s future.

And, tragically, 3000 people died on the US roads last year because they were distracted by their phones.

Flip the switch

Articles such as the above recommend we continue using written diaries and notebooks, delay checking our phones regularly, turn off non-essential notifications, post and share positive articles with friends, protect your sleep by switching your phone to Night Shift, and leave it in another room from sundown.

You can also use your wearable to your advantage. For instance, monitor your sleep with it, become curious as to how much time you spend dreaming, or in deep sleep, or restless. Set out a week of experiments to see if varying your bedtime changes your sleep quality.

Above all else, take charge of the electronics in your life, and use them the way astronauts do, to keep you safe and enhance your life.

Lessons from the SeventeenHundred Neuroscience Model:

  1. Relatedness: technology can be used to connect with likeminded people that we like and in turn like us. This is a positive influence when we are trying to embark on healthy behavioural change, such as eating cleaner or exercising more.
  2. Novelty: technology continually presents us novel and challenging information that is vital to building a resilient mind and brain. But, be careful to avoid click-bait trivia. Instead, follow interesting and informative websites and pages, and read widely across a variety of subjects, since increasing novelty and complexity in learning drives brain growth. Read what makes you curious and share that with others regularly.

Dr Roy Sugarman for SeventeenHundred