Saturday 1 October 2016

The age of infomania

In an era of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, Snapchat and email, we're all switched on all of the time. But is the digital revolution making our lives better, or is the smartphone simply making us dumb?

Published 26/09/2015 | 02:30

Privacy warning: Social media expert Ciamh McCrory. Photo: Damien Eagers
Privacy warning: Social media expert Ciamh McCrory. Photo: Damien Eagers

It is the greatest addiction of our age. From early morning to late at night, we are checking phones, tablets, laptops, Facebook and Twitter - and some people even do it while driving on a motorway, or on the toilet.

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In fact, in the modern digital era, many of us never switch off from digital media at all.

The smartphone lies next to the bed, or even on the pillow, and messages ping away through our sleeping hours.

The more compulsive users even check these messages and answer them in a state of semi-consciousness. No wonder, when they go back online later there may be trouble. Who did they send that picture to?

Enda Murphy, a cognitive behaviour therapist and co-author of Flagging the Screenager, says: "Many of these smartphone users hardly sleep properly at all. They wake up and look at the phone by their bed. They are catnapping between Facebook messages.

"You know it is an addiction when it interferes with your normal life," says the therapist. "You feel compelled to do it. It is a craving."

We now take the digital revolution for granted, and it seems that there is no turning back from a world in which we feel bereft when we are not always switched on. How did we reach a state of mind when we even have to check our phones between the courses in a restaurant with our families?

Increasingly, scientists are pausing to reflect on what the effect of this digital obsession might be.

It is not just the usual moral panic about the youth of today, which was also a feature of our culture when television came in.

This week, new research by YouGov for Vodafone showed 26pc of Irish teenagers had been bullied on the internet.

Cyberbullying has long been a concern, but those who observe the digital world closely are also studying the effect of the always-on culture on our brains.

Is information overload making us more anxious, and is it affecting our ability to think straight - to concentrate on one task in depth for more than a few minutes?

This concern is not just focused on screenagers - the digital natives who were born in the age of the internet. It also affects the online population at large.

Parents may complain about digital addiction in those under 20, but infomania is the norm in modern offices where employees and executives are constantly required to multitask. And often it is parents at home who can't pull themselves away from their devices.

In his book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuro­scientist Daniel J Levitin give his assessment of what the effects are on our minds.

"Our brains are busier than ever before," he says. "We're assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber and rumour, all posing as information."

The internet may seem convenient, but the neuroscientist argues that it actually requires us to do more in our everyday lives than we did before.

Thirty years ago travel agents made our airline reservations and booked hotels for us; now we do those tasks ourselves, sometimes struggling to navigate an ocean of different options.

Busy executives used to have secretaries who helped them to organise their lives, sifting through post and arranging meetings. Now senior office workers do that themselves, and the amount of correspondence, most of it irrelevant, has multiplied with emails and texts.

Daniel Levitin portrays the modern smartphone as a digital equivalent of a Swiss army knife. It has everything - dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, voice recorder, weather forecaster, satnav, Facebook updater and torch. It is a weapon of mass distraction.

Typically, we might be watching a Rugby World Cup match on TV while Tweeting or posting Facebook messages on a phone, and then a text message comes through.

Any sports fan who has done this will find themselves losing concentration. Part of the game they are watching passes them by, and they might struggle to recall what happened later.

Daniel Levitin argues that our brains are not wired to multitask well - and when we do it, we perform less efficiently. As Levitin puts it, when we flit between different media, we're not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we're more like a bad amateur plate spinner, waiting for one plate to come crashing down.

According to Levitin, repeated task-switching between digital media leads to anxiety, raising the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and compulsive behaviour.

Over-stimulated by cortisol and adrenaline, we can suffer from a mental fog; our thoughts are scrambled.

The information overload not only affects our ability to think in depth and makes us more stressed out. Occasionally it can lead to disaster.

Dr Eoin Whelan, lecturer in business information systems at NUI Galway, cites the example of an American attack on an Afghan village in the province of Uruzgan in 2010.

Villagers were peacefully going about their business when US helicopters, acting on information from a drone, swooped on them, killing 23 civilians in a hail of bullets and missiles.

The US Airforce investigated how this could have happened with all the information and surveillance available to the armed forces.

The problem was that there was simply too much information.

As he tried to absorb facts coming at him from drone video feeds, instant messaging, and voices over a radio, the person orchestrating the attack in Nevada wrongly interpreted a friendly village meeting as an imminent threat.

Dr Eoin Whelan says a constant barrage of emails, tweets, text messages and Facebook updates affects our decision-making skills.

"People are hoovering up so much data that most of them can't make sense of it," says Dr Whelan.

Faced with an avalanche of messages, we have to make many small decisions, but struggle to discern what is important. According to Daniel Levitin, we can then end up making the wrong call when we have to make a big decision.

So who thrives and who flounders in the digital world, with so much information at our fingertips?

Most of us are like kids in a candy store gazing at the sweets at eye level. We can't resist the temptation to reach out and grab. We click from one place to another, and forget what we were looking for in the first place.

According to Dr Whelan, the big fish of the internet world like Facebook and Twitter employ teams of psychologists and computer scientists to distract us in this way. The people who thrive in this environment are the conscientious types who can go online, but stay focused on the task in hand.

They plan and prioritise, are ordered and organised, says Eoin Whelan. If they have a task to do, they get it done rather than being distracted by the latest cat video on YouTube.

The one constant in the digital world is continuous change. To the generation of 16-24 year-olds who use Snapchat, the instant messaging site where photos arrive and disappear in seconds, email and even text messaging are becoming old hat, means of communication favoured by an older generation.

If social media has turned everyone into a publisher, now everyone can become a broadcaster. People are not just posting pictures of their parties on Facebook, they are streaming the events live.

Ciamh McCrory, an expert on social media with Insight Consultants, says: "Livestreaming is now becoming very popular through sites such as Periscope. It is incredibly easy to become a broadcaster - all you need is an app on your phone."

Having grown up with Google, digital natives might have been expected to have a better grasp of privacy issues than their less tech-savvy elders. But that is not the case, according to Ciamh McCrory.

"Younger people still don't realise that if you put stuff up on social media you are publishing it to everyone.

"I like to tell people that if they wouldn't put something on a billboard outside their mother's house, they shouldn't put it online, but a lot of young internet users still don't understand that."

The experts may worry about the effects of social media on our brains, and whether we are downgrading our minds when we upgrade our phones. But perhaps we should not be too pessimistic. The internet may not be good for our concentration, but it doesn't turn us into socially isolated delinquents, according to Dr Eoin Whelan. He highlights a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that seems to dispel fears that new technology pulls people away from social engagement.

The study showed that people who use Facebook several times a day are just as likely as anyone else to visit a neighbour in person and are actually more likely to belong to a youth group or charitable organisation.

In a world saturated with technology, coping well may simply be a matter of finding the right balance. We can all turn on, log in and hang out, but perhaps sometimes we need to learn how to switch off.

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