Digital Detox versus good Digital Nutrition

Simon Cowell stirred things up recently by declaring that since June he had disconnected from his iPhone in an effort to digitally detox, a sentiment that has now been echoed by many especially those who have been resistant to the emergence of the digital revolution.  Digital continues to come under criticism as it grows ever more integral to our existence and we appear to becoming ever more dependant on it, but the truth is digital is not to blame, it is simply our application of early digital engagement that has spawned so much negativity.  The future is not yet written, we are all moving forwards together whether we like it or not, even if we choose to face backwards.  We never went back from the iron age to the stone age, we never went back from the industrial revolution despite a time when London was suffocated by smog, plunging it into near darkness during day light hours, so it's fair to say that we won’t be going back from our current digital existence despite the negativity, and even evidence that (at the moment) it's harmful to our mental health, and possibly even aspects of our physical health.  Trying to reject or regress digital progress is futile, but what is not and what will make a difference is getting involved with what comes next. We are all responsible for shaping our digital future based on these early learnings.

Social media has been an early emergence in the digital revolution, with a vision of connecting the world and being able to share more, further and faster than previously ever dreamed of; and it turns out we love it! Billions of us of all ages use Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, You Tube etc; it seems we can't get enough in both our personal and business lives. Social media has a commanding hold and influence on so many aspects of our existence and despite the negativity, we are gripped and don't dare walk away from it.  In fact it's fascinating that Simon Cowell, a man who has made a career out of media entertainment, who whipped the public up into a frenzy over the showcased 'content' of his shows, seemingly propelling people to instant stardom by putting them on such a large stage, is now rejecting the culture he in some ways contributed to creating. 

I remember when I first joined Facebook back in 2005, my sole objective was to get in touch with a mate who had relocated to Canada.  I found him and Facebook allowed us to catch up on what had been going on in his life - what a great innovation!  Despite FB having this fantastic capability and being designed with zero malice or negative intent, it quickly became all about who had the most friends and who could demonstrate they had the coolest life - the first signs of the negative psychological impact that digital could have.  As it turns out this behaviour is no different really to that of the school playground bully or alpha but digital unintentionally scaled this up and found a way of isolating people on a whole new level.  Since the birth of www. digital has connected the world, and now with this global stage, social media has allowed people and their posted activities to ‘go viral’ reaching billions instantly, meaning that talent, entertainment, news and even intimate relationships can be found faster and easier than ever before.  Again, this is such a fantastic opportunity in so many ways  except not everyone uses this application for peace, love and happiness, instead some use it for evil, hurt and upset, but that's life right? There has always been lovers and always been haters, the emergence of digital has simply amplified what was already there in human nature and made it easier for it it flourish.

Before digital there were simply stories and rumours and depending on who was telling them and how many people they knew, would directly relate to the impact and reach of these stories and rumours. Nowadays any one person can have as much impact as an entire organisation of people trying to make an impact. Opinions, advocacy and impactful influence can happen in a heart beat, which has bred anxiety at every level, from corporate organisation to school kids.  Social media has created fear in many, from FOMO to fear of simply being average (normal).  As such as we peer at the world through our digital device we often have a very skewed view of the world often created by this fear, by people over compensating, over amplifying and over hyping in order to not only fit in but hopefully rise to the top.

Digital has been accused of causing serious mental health issues, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, body dysmorphia, anorexia to mention a few, it has been accused of insighting hatred and violence, it has removed jobs and even now closed high street shops to mention only a few negatives, none of which should be taken likely or ignored.  But for every Ying there is a Yang and digital is also responsible for so many exciting advances and so much happiness.  WhatsApp for example brings instant joy and happiness to my 70 year old parents throughout the day as they are kept up to speed with the daily development of their grandsons, first laughs, first steps etc which they would have otherwise missed because they live too far away to see them everyday. Watching the videos, viewing the photos and being unified by reading and contributing to positive happy family text banter causes the release of serotonin, dopamine and even oxytocin, bonding and binding our family.  It is these neuro-chemicals which are believed to counter negative mental health, in fact they are responsible for happiness and love (It has now actually been scientifically and clinically proven that the right digital content will cause the release of these neuro-chemicals - something egg is currently partnering, developing and happy to discuss if interested?  But an example of a Yang of Whatsapp, and an example of something we need to be aware of and shape as our digital lives evolve, is a function that casts a little message saying ' [Name] has left the group' this little message is an example of a digital action that can immediately cast all sorts of negative feelings, so instead of being informative or useful it has contributed to negative psychosocial behaviours.

It is safe to say that, much like the food that we choose to consume, some digital content is better for us than others.  We are all now made aware of the dangers of hidden salt, cholesterol, sugar etc in our food and as a result the food we now consume compared to that of only a few years ago is much healthier for us, manufactures are producing foods in line with the demand for 'healthy' and many processes have had to change to ensure this.  As such there is no reason why our use, and consumption of digital couldn't adopt the same approach with UX designers building in positive digital nutrition and removing unnecessary negative elements such as the Whatsapp feature previously mentioned - little things that could have a big impact.  Then there's the cigarettes, alcohol and drugs of the digital world, our understanding of the negative impact of these on our health and our society is far greater now than it ever was.  The amount of education, public warning given and even legislation now means we can proactively manage the dangers.  The film industry needs to conform and comply with age certification U, PG, 15, 18 for a reason, so maybe there is a case to be made that all apps (not just some - Instagram, FB etc) adhere to something similar, carry warnings or install auto safe guards for the vulnerable?  Even medicines that do good carry warnings of side effects and need to be prescribed by a qualified doctor (Could we see digital content in the future being prescribed? Maybe that's one for another blog)

The point is we are living in the digital era and there is no going back, the design of our current digital products, our use and consumption of these digital products has called into question the impact of digital on our society and our mental health. But as with the type of food we choose to consume, how much of it, and how regularly we consume it based on education and recommendations, maybe we can not only shape our future digital content consumption but proactively influence healthy positive sources that actually powerfully create a better society and world.  If the Yang of digital has had such a far reaching negative impact, surely the Ying could achieve the same but in a positive way.