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Are phones and gadgets good or bad for you? Yes!

Experts regularly debate, agree and disagree about how good or bad digital technology (DigiTech) is for us – whether we are young, old, working or playing. Until we are further down the line in this great social experiment called Digital Technology and Social Media, the expert opinion (including mine) comes down to the individual expert bias and perspective.  

A recent Guardian article summarises the opinions gathered from a few expert interviews and showcases their divided opinions on how good or bad DigiTech is. We know both from a historical and an anecdotal perspective that the introduction of any form of technology changes us culturally and individually. DigiTech is no exception.

I think a better set of questions to ask is – How does using digital technology…:

1. Impact my mental and physical well-being?

2. Improve or add to my life goals?

3. Add to or take away from my ‘in-person’ community / relationship with others?

And probably the most important question of all is:

4. Do I feel like I’m in control of, or being controlled by, my DigiTech use?

If the answer to any of these is not what you’d like it to be, then maybe something needs to change. 

The greatest concern is around the impact on children. Research is increasingly revealing that children under 13 (and probably really children under 16) should be restricted in their use of DigiTech. If a phone is needed from a safety perspective, there are plenty of alternatives to a smartphone.

They are cognitively, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and developmentally too young. Ruth Guest from Sersha uses a great comparison of giving a child a smartphone being in the same category as giving a child a set of keys to your car

More than anything, the thing we have most lost out on, is human connectivity and the life benefits that come from a deep, relational, accountable, reliable community. This is where children and teens are losing out the most.

In a Netflix documentary called ‘Live to 100, Secrets of the Blue Zones‘, Dan Buettner looks at the key elements that promote longer life in pockets of areas where both men and women are living substantially longer and healthier lives than the average. In this series, and in his Ted Talk, he lists just a few key attributes that contribute to a longer life.

One of these is being actively involved and participating in an in-person community. International travel and leaving our communities in search of career and personal fulfilment have gone some way to weaken ties with those intimate relational communities. And we don’t always work hard enough to build a community in the place we find ourselves for work. 

Similarly, in her Ted Talk, Susan Pinker has come to a matching conclusion. It seems to be that having people around us that we can rely on in our physical space is an important element of longevity and a life well lived.

Granted, not all relationships are created equal, but if we are spending the majority of our lives creating (often international) digital connections with others, rather than investing in (local) in-person relationships we are losing out on a fundamental element of what it is to be human.

We are living with unprecedented levels of online connection, but physical ‘aloneness’ – resulting in a major loneliness epidemic.

They say that loneliness strips you of 7 years of your life. Being lonely is stressful. It’s hard work. It’s mentally exhausting. It’s soul-destroying. It is why solitary confinement is such a harsh form of punishment and being a social outcast is so emotionally and psychologically devastating. 

Even those who are introverts – who need time on their own to emotionally and mentally recover from the energy required to engage with others – still need regular social interactions. 

The thing is, in the same way that eating too much of the wrong type of food too often leads to progressive weight gain, leading to negative longer-term physical consequences, spending too much time engaging in online communities and not enough time in our off-line communities results in a negative longer-term emotional and social consequences.

If you can relate to this, below are a few suggested things to think through:

  • How strong are your current offline connections?
  • Who, in your social or family circle, could you call at any time and know they will physically be able to help you?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how lonely do you feel (with 10 being really lonely)?
  • If you wanted to spend more time with friends/family or meet new people, what could you do or where could you go that doesn’t involve using digital technology? 
  • What changes do you need to make to my DigiTech use to increase the amount of time you physically spend with others?