The Digital Sabbath: What do the experts say?

With all this talk about a digital detox, let’s take a step back and look at the theory-driven tension between contemporary psychologists and business academics…

Do online addictions really exist? Can we manage the hold of these online gadgets; these digital extensions of self?

Some have taken the alarmist notion of ‘online addictions’ very seriously. The epidemic of online problem behaviours has even coerced American psychologist, Dr Kimberley Young, to develop a counselling plan and ‘online empowerment centre’. Young believes online addictions are very real, and include dependencies upon gaming, web surfing, consumer websites and cyberporn.

But alas, other psychologists have a very different perspective.

Let’s take this article written by Dr Pamela Rutledge. She feels the media use correlative studies as an effective excuse for stating causative inference. You can’t call 8 hours of Internet use a day an addiction, unless you have empirical evidence and a lot of scientific leverage to validate your claims. An article worthy of copious Rutledge sneers can be found here.

So, what are some of the alleged symptoms of online media withdrawal? According to participants in a particular social media detox called Unplugged – phantom phone vibrations, a sense of panic and impending doom, and lastly, the death of your digital soul might ensue.

But hurrah – from the polarised perspectives of different scholarly opinions, here come the middle grounders…

After emailing professor of Gambling Studies, Dr Mark Griffiths, he invited me to share his comprehensive research on a few areas of concern for ‘hyper-onlinianism’. For example, Griffiths agrees there are a plethora of unsubstantiated theories developing around addictions associated with being ‘switched on’. But he’s also given some weight to the observations of Chinese scientists, who’ve found the brain matter of traditional addicts also mirrors the brain abnormalities of excessive Internet users. Scary stuff.

However, Griffith argues that the majority of articles do not distinguish between addictions to the Internet (such as excessive chat-room use) and addictions on the Internet (for example, pre-existing addictions such as gambling, which manifest online).

Undoubtedly, the empirical rigour for online addiction studies is problematic. Needless to say, whether or not the science can be validated, there are definitely individuals who feel that studies should continue to measure just how severe online dependency has become.

Current researchers have dabbled with measurements like the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. Though imperfect for measuring all online dependencies, this scale provides insight into how much individuals feel the need to socially bridge themselves with their online counterparts.

Source: Nursing Link

So should we be in a panicked flurry about future generations and the online addictions which await them? Perhaps. But there is no question that traditional problem behaviours will manifest themselves in ways we have never seen before.

To take a more nuanced approach in analysing the effects of digital technologies, let’s take a look at businesses that have been forced to work around the clock.

Australian banks are particularly under the pump, with the ‘switching on’ of overseas markets when most Australians are climbing into bed. Dr Kristine Dery, Senior Lecturer of Work and Organisational Studies at The University of Sydney, commenced a longitudinal study about how mobile connectivity in particular, has changed the workplace of banks from 2006 to 2012.

The “high performance” banking industry urges us to consider “fluid dynamics between work and non-work,” Dery says. To be a legitimate player in the global working marketplace, Australian banks need to “consider what is happening outside of the Australian context” at all times. Working and leisure time are no longer, and can no longer be, separate entities.

Dery talks about the digital toolbox, which has emerged post 2006. Executives now walk into boardrooms with “at least two devices.” Items which feature in this ‘tool kit’ include the blackberry, iPhone, iPad and laptop. This ‘multiple device’ ownership lay in stark contrast to the predictions of tech experts: back in 2006, they believed device integration was the next step.

Source: Susan Scheff

So how do workers deal with this multi-faceted pressure? Dery uses an analogy that has entered the 2012 ‘tech discourse’ for time management. The ‘faucet’ is the focal image of the theory. Bankers now need to “manage a tap,” where they essentially control their professional and personal ‘flows’ to the online world. She believes it is quite possible to turn these professional and personal taps up and down, without switching off completely.

Dery references the book Sleeping with Your Smartphone, by Leslie Perlow, to show how consultancy groups are starting to advocate this tap flow analogy. Perlow outlines how The Boston Consultancy Group sought to “change the nature of the work structure” which allowed employees to “shift and move fluidly” from one of their digital devices to the next. It’s not about shutting your personal life off whilst at work, or vice versa. It might be about allowing yourself to turn the metaphorical ‘work tap’ on full between 9-5, and the freedom to turn this down at times. For example, you might need to ‘turn the tap flow pressure up’ for family and friends, through the odd text or email.

Developing the skills to flick from the personal device to the work device, and being given the support to do this in the workplace, can really increase behavioural efficiency and time management.

To Dery, allowing oneself to be flexible when approaching technology in the work place is a liberating phenomenon. Instead of burning out by staying at the office for hours upon end, hunched over in a purely ‘working’ mental space – developing the skills to flick from the personal device to the work device, and being given the support to do this in the workplace, can really increase behavioural efficiency and time management.

Additionally, Dery speaks for women everywhere when she suggests that mobile technology “has enabled us to take on roles with much greater responsibility and still manage our home lives as well.” She believes women, like herself, are “no longer confined by space and time,” and thus, discards the demonizing notion of being ‘switched on’ 24/7 like “digital handcuffs.” Instead, she describes digital technologies as “tools of liberation.” Even our competitiveness in the working world relies on designing an online presence.

Dery believes that proposing a national day of unplugging for Australia assumes that all people have the same [digital detox] needs. She is more excited by the changing work landscape she has witnessed within her longitudinal studies of banks. Engaging “a more diverse workplace” where digital tools enable us to “share ideas” in an “informed way” can actually avoid the burden of overworking – and by simply enabling the personal tap flow analogy – one can control their work and social lifestyles with the switch of a button. Want to know more? Click here to read the full interview with Kristine Dery.

So should we learn to manage our online habits better, or go cold turkey? →