Dr Lawrence Ampofo

Dr Lawrence Ampofo, founder and CEO of Digital Mindfulnessexplores the rise of tech-free time and what it means for people's health and the tech industry.

As humans’ use of social media and other digital technologies has increased to the point that the majority of the world’s population is registered as an internet user, praise has rightly been heaped on the seemingly boundless possibilities such technology affords us. Social media, in particular, which offers its 3.5 billion global user base, the possibility to connect with everyone we’ve ever known, share information of all kinds near-instantaneously, and connect with people who share similar ideologies to us, is rightly considered a cornerstone of modern life.

At the same time, social media’s power to connect has dovetailed with the increasing pervasiveness of technology more generally. Social media communities are on our desktops, laptops, televisions, and our phones. The barriers to entry for access to social media are now so low that internet-connected society is able to see and be seen by anyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This pervasiveness of technology is a new feature of modern life, and efforts to understand the impact of living in a constantly connected society are ongoing. Living a constantly connected life is something that people have expressed concern with for many years, and this concern has slowly but surely risen over time. As a result, calls people to regularly take time away from their digitised lives to reflect on the quality of our social media behaviours is something that would have stayed within the periphery.

However, increasing reports on the potential for social media in particular to affect a range of important human qualities such as attention, productivity, self-esteem, judgment, and more have only increased calls from esteemed publications, thought leaders and influential organisations that greater consideration of the quality of our relationships with technology should be put front and centre of our day-to-day lives.

At its heart, the calls signalling a need to improve the quality of our relationships with technology is a clarion call for people to spend more time thinking about the digitised lives we aspire to lead. As users of digital technologies, we have an obligation to our own minds and bodies to remain watchful of the information we allow to permeate our lives.

In addition, it is imperative we as a society take the time to examine the quality of our lives with other digital artefacts. Academic research has long been conducted into the effects of other core technologies that in one way or another rely on the capture of human attention; virtual reality, email, voice technology and video games are obvious examples of this. Using these technologies with their default settings potentially permits features that impact our attention, and quality of our experience (increased notifications for example).

The growing popular awareness and acceptance of taking time away from digital is something an upward trend that is only set to continue. In addition to something that benefits people’s health and wellbeing, it is also becoming apparent that carefully structured breaks from technology through greater automation and greater thoughtfulness on the quality of people’s attention whilst with technology, make for excellent business sense.

Encouraging people to use the right technology at the right time and the right place makes for a far more rewarding experience and indicates to people that whether their need is to be with loved ones, complete an important piece of work or simply be in the moment, makes them far more loyal and engaged over the short, medium and long term.

Innovative companies are becoming increasingly aware of the importance that their tools take greater consideration of human attention and wellbeing. Facebook, the poster child for everything that is simultaneously good and bad about social media, has over the past 3 years announced the gradual rollout of major changes that have as their objective, greater privacy, security and wellbeing on the platform. Travel apps such as TomTom and Google Maps have worked for years to improve their systems so that less human attention is required to effectively work the app, and greater attention can be given to help people arrive at their destination safely.

These small examples indicate that the trend towards the conscious disconnection from technology to review their relationships with their digitised lives is a behaviour that is set to increase in the short term at least. Becoming increasingly aware of our interactions with the technology that supports our lives every day sends powerful feedback loops to the companies that engineer these systems of the importance of managing our attention, and they help people on an individual basis become more aware of the way we want to spend time with technology.

RSPH have developed a free online educational resource to help the public develop a healthier, more meaningful relationship with social media. Access the programme here

Niamh, Olivia and Bridie from the RSPH team recorded a podcast interview with Lawrence in September 2019. Listen to the episode here.