The fiction of ‘digital wellness’—and the truth of digital dependence

Let’s not be so quick to stigmatize healthy digital adoption by calling it addiction

The fiction of ‘digital wellness’—and the truth of digital dependence
Diego Cervo / Getty Images

I know I’m showing my age, but when I was a young whippersnapper, we were always being nagged not to watch so much of the so-called “boob tube.” Specifically, we were advised to read actual books (but not, heaven help us, comic books or Mad magazine) and to refrain from Gilligan’s Island and all of that junk once and for all.

But when I became a mature adult and TV evolved into the rich cornucopia of streaming, mobile, on-demand, and other entertainment services we have today, nobody seemed to worry about that as much as they used to. Instead, society changed to the point where it suddenly became hip to binge on whatever we now consider TV, especially on the prestige stuff on HBO, Showtime, and Netflix.

Now, we’re being told that the real junk is on the internet, and what’s truly rotting our minds are those addictive apps on our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets.

Google’s “digital wellness” is a feel-good feint

In recent months in the tech industry, the topic of “digital wellness” has entered the news cycle in connection with Google’s preannouncement of its forthcoming next-generation smartphone operating system, Android P. As reporters digested Google’s discussion of Android P’s app timer, wind down, do not disturb, and other “digital wellness” features designed to gently unglue our hands and eyeballs from our devices, I couldn’t help chuckling.

It reminded me of all the useless innovations that tobacco companies have rolled out over years—charcoal-activated filters, reduced tar and nicotine content, etc.—to help cigarette-addicted consumers feel like they were doing something to live with the adverse consequences of their habit.

In fact, none of those innovations made even the slightest dent in reducing the likelihood that smokers would hasten their deaths from cancer, emphysema, and so on. What we have now are retrograde inventions such as vaping and e-cigarettes that just pound trendy new addictive nails into your coffin.

Likewise, those “digital wellness” features being built in Android won’t affect our addiction to mobile devices. In fact, it feels faintly ridiculous to imagine that equipping your phone—or any device, app, or online service—with “digital wellness” features can “cure” your dependence on it all. Let’s not imagine that Silicon Valley can reengineer users’ lifestyles so that vast numbers of them suddenly start getting eight hours of sleep a night and spend every spare moment in the great outdoors picking daisies. If anything, many users will either ignore well-intentioned “digital wellness” features or deactivate them as soon as, say, the app timer shuts down your phone at the worst possible moment.

Fortunately, unless you try to swallow it in one gulp, your smartphone won’t kill you.

I couldn’t help noticing the irony of Google’s aggressive pitch for Android P’s broader feature set. The pitch focuses, per this product manager’s blog, on that fact that the Android P OS, currently in beta, will be “packed with smarts and [be] simpler than ever.” This reminded me of the last days before the US banned broadcast advertising for the highly addictive tobacco products. I fondly remember one cigarette manufacturer’s idiotic commercial jingle highlighting the dubious benefit of its carcinogenic product being a “silly millimeter longer.”

If you look at core new functionality in Android P, it’s mostly designed to deepen people’s dependence on their gadgets, not reduce them:

  • Adaptive battery: This will prioritize the device’s battery power only for the apps and services you use the most, helping you go longer before recharging.
  • Adaptive brightness: This will adjust the device’s screen illumination to your surroundings, helping use it without strain in more environments more of the time.
  • App actions: This will help you use the device to do more things more proactively and contextually, based on what you like to do the most. It will automatically anticipate your next actions and will work closely with other Google online ecosystem pillars such as Launcher, Smart Text Selection, the Play Store, the Google Search app, and Assistant.
  • Slices: These will speed your interactive access to specific features, data, and other deep facets of apps on the device, helping you be more productive, ward off distractions, expedite smartphone-facilitated transactions, and focus more tightly on this wonderful, magical gadget around which you’ve retooled your entire life.

In other words, Google may be talking up “digital wellness” but it’s actually providing more digital dependence.

How to get “digital wellness” for real

People everywhere love their gadgets and have no real desire to lessen their dependence on them. Thus, these new “digital dependence” features will almost certainly scratch many an itch among loyal Android users.

The practical necessity of smartphones and other intelligent devices in our lives is undeniable. They are the foundation of the new world culture, being used everywhere to place calls, send texts, navigate streets, pay for goods and services, open doors, and so forth.

In terms of my own life, telling me that I’m addicted to my iPhone is equivalent to saying I’m addicted to the car key in my pocket, the eyeglasses on my nearsighted face, and the comb I carry around to keep my stringy, balding head semipresentable.

Fundamentally, what every person needs is to be happier, more productive, and engaged in life, regardless of whether you’ve chosen a thoroughly digital existence or have minimal engagement in cyberspace. Rather than stigmatize the digital lifestyles that many people, especially the young, have chosen, it’s better to frame this issue by asking the following questions:

  • What’s the realistic alternative to digital immersion in our lives?
  • Does it make sense to issue a one-size-fits-all guidance on how many times a day we should be checking or engaging with our gadgets, apps, and online services?
  • What attention span—long, short, or in-between—should we be devoting to the various and sundry digital and analog aspects of our lives at every point in our day?
  • What is the optimal blend of digital and physical engagement with friends, family members, acquaintances, and strangers in a well-balanced life?
  • When and why should we realize we’ve sequestered ourselves into an online echo chamber of like-minded people and take efforts to invite diversity into our social media universe?
  • When should we manually review and curate our digital online media consumption versus just letting Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and other online services autoplay the next recommended, targeted, and precisely personalized content item at all hours, even when we’re sleeping or not paying attention?
  • How can we identify the threshold when digital experience may no longer be considered healthy stimulation but has degenerated into unhealthy distraction?

In reality, the popular obsession with addictive technology often comes down to concerns over specific types of online content that are considered by some well-meaning individuals to be bad for us. In a similar vein, much of this popular discussion often comes down a paternalistic focus on monitoring and controlling children’s consumption of the online cornucopia, typically underestimating the digital savvy that many—including my own now-grown offspring—gained at an early age.

The historical parallel from my own childhood was constantly hearing that Saturday morning TV cartoons were going to turn me into a blithering “vidiot” who would be incapable of someday morphing into a well-respected technology know-it-all. Guess I showed them!

Addressing mental health issues of digital lifestyles

Some cultural authorities have keyed in on mental health issues that were ostensibly fostered or exacerbated by our supposed addictions to social media, celebrity clickbait, cyberporn, fake news, and all the rest of that junk. Apparently, everybody’s “digital wellness” should start with them scaling back consumption of this stuff and spending more time engaged in heart-to-heart conversations with the people in their lives.

Personally, I believe that everybody everywhere should spend every waking hour tweeting about artificial intelligence, but that’s my problem.

I’m not downplaying the correlation of social media usage with depression, anxiety, anger, mood swings, self-image disorders, violent predispositions, and other mental health issues. In fact, I’m grateful that advocacy groups have formed to call attention to these issues, provide helpful guidance for users to reduce these risks, and propose innovations in technology design that may provide some relief to people who need the digital equivalent of a nicotine patch to get them through their day (and a good night’s sleep). And I appreciate the efforts that GoogleFacebook, Snapchat, and other digital powerhouses have made to incorporate features that might on some limited level foster digital restraint among their users.

But “digital wellness” must always be considered in a larger social context. Every one of us on social media needs to show sensitivity, empathy, humility, restraint, awareness, responsibility, and thoughtfulness, just as we should in our lives outside the digital realm. It’s good to see advocacy groups embracing holistic approaches that focus on ethics, citizenship, mindfulness, nutrition, education, and other factors above and beyond whether we’re checking our iPhones too often. To that end, more and more schools are providing community-centric “digital wellness” guidance in their courses and extracurricular programs.

“Digital wellness” isn’t a technological quick fix. And it’s not something you can foster by simply getting people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and find other things to occupy their lives. We must accept that digital media are key enablers for fully realized participation in 21st century society.

So, let’s not be so quick to stigmatize healthy digital adoption by calling it addiction. These are the lives we live right now.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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