The first iPhone was released by Apple in June 2007. Just over 10 years later, there are more than 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world (eMarketer report, 2017) and 94% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2018). This rapid development of technology has significantly altered the way we live our lives. With smartphones, we are more connected than ever before. We can look up information and learn new skills without leaving the house. We can communicate around the world with immediacy, spreading messages and ideas faster than ever before. And beyond smartphone development, we have seen significant technological improvements in health care, energy consumption, robotics, virtual reality, business, and transportation.
The Unintended Consequences of Technology
However, these wide-ranging benefits of technology come at a cost. The Global Wellness Institute (2018) has found substantial evidence supporting adverse effects of technology on a) social relationships and loneliness; b) sleep; c) inactivity, obesity and physiological health; d) mental wellness; e) distraction and safety; and f) productivity. Although all important factors of well-being, this post will focus specifically on the impact of technology on social relationships and loneliness. The influx of smartphone usage and persistent connectivity has rapidly altered the way people interact with each other and form relationships. Throughout this change, we are learning that not all connection is created equal, and the result of losing substantive connections for superficial ones can be devastating. Countries around the world are declaring epidemics of loneliness as people struggle to create meaningful connections (Hafner, 2016).
While technology itself is neither good or bad, the way we use technology can have significantly positive or negative effects on our well-being.
Consider for a moment our ability to connect with others through technology. At the touch of a button, we can spend 20 minutes on Apple FaceTime or Google Hangouts with family members around the world to share positive life updates over video chat. Similarly, we can spend hours scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds, idly monitoring the curated online lives of our extended network. While both activities include technology and forms of social connection, they can have drastically different results on our lives – the latter being associated with increased envy and decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).
Research is starting to catch up to the rapid development of technology and the results are concerning. Young adults with high social media usage tend to experience more perceived social isolation than their counterparts with lower social media usage (Primack et al., 2017). This is a problem. Social isolation, both perceived and actual, is associated with increased risk of early mortality, even more so than other known risk factors, including obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). Additionally, Cheng & Li (2014) report that global internet addition, defined as excessive use to the extent that time spent on devices impacts relationships, work, daily activities, and physical and mental health, has reached a global prevalence estimate of 6%. Unsurprisingly, they found that internet addiction is inversely associated with quality of life, as reflected by both subjective (life satisfaction) and objective (quality of environmental conditions) indicators. As internet continues to be more ingrained in our lives, through smartphones or otherwise, it would not be surprising to see the rate of internet addiction, and the associated negative outcomes, to continue to increase over time.
Like other addictions, however, fault does not reside exclusively with the individual. Technology companies have seemingly neglected their impact on well-being when designing and launching new products. In fact, their incentives are often completely misaligned with well-being. Consider Facebook, a company that makes more than 98% of its revenue through advertising (Facebook, 2018). Facebook is responsible to its shareholders to steadily increase revenue, and steadily increasing advertising revenue equates with finding ways to get people to spend more and more time on their platform (to see more ads). This does not bode well for human flourishing based on the known association between social media usage and decreased well-being (Primack et al., 2017). Of course, it’s not just Facebook – Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube all operate under the same business models and are equally innovating to capture more of people’s time.
To understand how these leading technology decision makers think, consider the sentiment expressed by Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, stating that one of Netflix’s biggest competitors is sleep itself (Snider, 2017).
This poses a serious threat to our well-being, especially considering the significant reach of these leading technology companies in today’s connected world. Once again, it becomes important to remind ourselves that technology itself is neither good or bad; rather, it’s how we design and consume technology that influences our well-being and ability to flourish.
Righting the Ship: Designing for Well-Being
Let’s revisit the example of Facebook and its impact on well-being. As highlighted above, Facebook is designed to maximize time on site and advertising revenue. Accordingly, for years Facebook has been developing mechanisms to draw their customers in for hours on end, resulting in the enticing world of endless news feed scrolling we often find ourselves in today. It’s exactly this type of passive Facebook usage that leads to decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015). On the other hand, evidence suggests that actively interacting with others on Facebook, i.e. through direct messaging and reminiscing about past interactions, is actually linked to improvements in well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).
In other words, Facebook itself is neither inherently good or bad, but how one uses it can make all the difference. If we can agree that well-being should be the primary objective of technology, and align incentives accordingly (easier said than done), we can begin designing technology products with a deliberate focus on increasing well- being.
Encouragingly, in Facebook’s most recent investor report (2018), founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, noted “we are taking a broader view of our responsibility and investing to make sure our services are used for good.”
Will this actually translate into Facebook updating their product and design to encourage more active usage, even if it comes at the cost of less passive usage and advertising revenue? Only time will tell…
Cheng, C., & Li, A. Y. L. (2014). Internet addiction prevalence and quality of (real) life: a meta-analysis of 31 nations across seven world regions. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(12), 755-760.
Facebook Reports First Quarter 2018 Results. (2018, Apr 25). PRNewswire. Retrieved from: https://investor.fb.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2018/Facebook-Reports-First-Quarter-2018-Results/default.aspx
Hafner, K. (2016, Sep 6). Researchers confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.
McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., Sood, A., Limburg, P. J., Goodin, T., Malleret, T. (2018). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. In Global Wellness Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2018/4/10/new-report-wellness-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone
Mobile Fact Sheet. (2018, Feb 5). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., yi Lin, L., Rosen, D., … & Miller, E (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US. American journal of preventive medicine, 53(1), 1-8.
Snider, M. (2017, Apr 18). Netflix’s biggest competition? Sleep, CEO says. USA Today Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/04/18/netflixs-biggest-competition-sleep-ceo-says/100585788/
Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., . . . Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.
Worldwide Internet and Mobile Users: eMarketer’s Updated Estimates and Forecast for 2017– 2021 (2017, Dec 1.) In eMarketer Report. Retrieved from: https://www.emarketer.com/Report/Worldwide-Internet-Mobile-Users-eMarketers Updated-Estimates-Forecast-20172021/2002147