Written by Iman Hassan

Every week a new article comes out telling us how technology will ruin our lives - from how artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over to how social media is making us anti-social. But how much of this is true?

There is no right or wrong answer. That’s the argument Psychologist Dr. David Ellis of Lancaster University made during his talk Is technology ruining our lives? at the British Science Festival. He also argued the way we talk about technology has a dual nature: in medicine, it is seen as a tool that can help save our lives, while in psychology, there is concern about the psychological impact our digital existence has on us.

Dr. Ellis gave us ten pieces of information to help us make up our minds on whether we think technology is in fact ruining our lives:

Technology is not a drug

The comparison of social media with drugs like cocaine is one that is often made. When you scroll through your social media feeds and check your notifications, your brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine along the reward pathway which makes you feel good. Dopamine is also released with food, exercise, love, sex, drugs etc. But taking drugs like cocaine has a much larger detrimental impact on the human body. Is it really fair to equate social media usage with taking drugs?

The power of fear

Psychology says we are concerned with technology or new things, because they disrupt social norms. When the telephone was invented, there were fears that it would make people deaf. Many statements made about new technological inventions have been debunked, but how do we break this loop?

Speed vs Stubbornness

In the 1980s, people worried about the game Dungeon & Dragons (D&D), a role-playing game which involved people’s imagination. By playing the game, it was thought that people would lose connection with the real world (sounds familiar?) We didn’t stop worrying about D&D because of new evidence coming to light, we simply just stopped worrying about it because our anxiety shifted from this to the internet and online games.

Made-up concepts

Technology addiction started out as a practical joke. In the mid-1990s, the American psychiatrist Dr Ivan Goldberg grew frustrated with how psychiatry was medicalising everyday life. He wanted to use the internet as an example, so he took symptoms from gambling disorders and substance abuse disorder and he pushed them together to create ‘internet addiction’ to illustrate how silly the medicalisation of everyday life had become and yet here we are 20 years later, talking about smartphone addiction, selfies and nomophobia.

Grounded truth is far from perfect.

The measure of technology use is much like the live experiment Dr Ellis took us through in his talk, when he asked the audience: “How many times do you check social media a day? Raise and keep your hands up if it’s more than 10, 20, 30 times...” However, most people won’t accurately guess the number of times they check on their phones a day (the average person checks their phone 87 times a day). Often this is how our technology use is measured along with a mood score to see if there is a correlation between smartphone addiction and mood. However, using your phone is a habitual behaviour - if you check your phones 87 times a day, it’s likely that that number will be the same in one week's time or in seven months’ time. The use of the term addiction suggests that our usage should get worse, but it doesn’t. Our technology use is complex yet consistent.

Many people who study the effects of technology know very little about technology

…for example, some researchers were not aware that an individual can track the usage of their phone through the apps like QualityTime, which offers real-time reports, which show the time spent gazing at your phone. It gives a detailed analysis of total usage, screen unlocks and much more, with hourly, daily, and weekly reports. This is useful information for research as it shows when people use their phones the most and can help uncover more about our behaviour in everyday modern life.

Is a digital detox necessary?

Dr Ellis spoke about a study he conducted called Digital detox: The effect of smartphone abstinence on mood, anxiety, and craving in which participants had to abstain from using their smartphone for 24 hours. The results of the study showed that levels of craving increased following smartphone abstinence while mood and anxiety were unaffected.

Conflict of interest

Dr. Ellis posed the idea that, of all the subfields, psychology should be aware of how a conflict-of-interest can bias research, yet very few psychological scientists who have obvious conflicts of interest report them in their articles or books. He cited cases of clinics publishing research on technology addiction and not disclosing that they themselves are profiting directly from treating technology addiction (something that is neither standardised, validated or shown to help people).

Post-truth science

The casual use of the term ‘addiction’ used on a constant basis in the media has a very real effect of potentially trivialising how we talk about addiction. Scientists are not sure if technology might cause problems in people’s lives, or if those who already have problems in their lives gravitate towards using technology in less healthy ways.

Priorities

It’s not all doom and gloom - research in how technology affects us is developing and we are starting to uncover more information. However, there are a variety of conditions and diseases we are already aware of that are currently harming our lives. So, it’s important to not lose sight of the bigger picture.

To conclude the talk, Dr. Ellis left us with this message: “The next time you read an article that states technology will ruin our lives, I ask you to remember that it’s about people as much as it is about technology.”

References:

Digital detox: The effect of smartphone abstinence on mood, anxiety, and craving (2019), WilcocksonT.D.W.ab, OsborneA.M.c, EllisD.A.b

https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/is-technology-addiction-a-myth/p07ggx85?playlist=imho