The Debate: rise of digital connectivity – empowering or debilitating?

Is digital technology empowering workers and organisations through limitless 24/7 connectivity, or is it debilitating our mental health and overloading us with distractions? 

Joe Nandhakumar is Professor of Information Systems at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, named by Virgin Media Business as the UK’s most digitally savvy university earlier this year. He argues that advances in digital techology are making us more efficient at work

Today’s workplace has become saturated with interactive devices and multiple channels of digital communication. Digital connectivity has become ubiquitous, demanding workers’ attention and requiring them to be constantly ‘present’ and responsive. Such proliferation is often seen as interrupting work, deflecting attention from ‘actual’ work and productive use of time. This fails to recognise the benefits of digital connectivity for knowledge working in the business world and the changing nature of such work.

Ubiquitous digital connectivity helps rather than hinders the effective completion of collective tasks and affords knowledge workers much greater latitude and control over the timing and location of their work

Joe Nandhakumar, Professor of Information Systems at Warwick Business School

A Warwick Business School study conducted at leading technology companies in the UK, Finland and Germany on social-media connectivity in work settings found it altered workers’ sense of ‘presence’ and helped rather than hindered the effective completion of collective tasks. It also indicates that it afforded workers much greater latitude and control over the timing and location of their work.

In academic settings, digital connectivity and interactions are often seen as a positive aspect of our work and an essential part of how we keep up to speed with new knowledge and developments. Other studies have also noted how knowledge workers increasingly emphasise the volume of email processed as an indicator of overall workload. Ubiquitous digital connectivity should be seen not as an unwelcome interruption but as part of the changing nature of knowledge work that needs to become part of the everyday practices of organisations.

My colleague Nikiforos Panourgias, Assistant Professor of Information Systems, argues that it is unhelpful to view digital communications as technologies distinct from work practices. Instead, by employing a ‘socio-material’ approach to studies of such phenomena, as our research seeks to do, it is possible to better understand the mutual constitution of knowledge-work practices and the digital technologies involved in them.

The popular view that workers are passive in responding to digital alerts also fails to recognise the extent of their ability to exercise choice in their interactions with digital media. Even with the constant connectivity afforded by mobile digital media, studies suggest workers can respond to communications in their own time, enabling time-shifting of tasks. The state of connectivity may be perceptual and highly idiosyncratic, but knowledge workers can exert control. Evidence suggests that knowledge workers who successfully deal with the timing and sequence of their ‘presence’ and responses were better able to organise their workflow.

This growing body of evidence suggests that instead of seeing digital connectivity as disruptive, organisations should investigate how work performance can be assessed and supported through policies that encourage the use of such technologies for the serving of organisational goals. They should also investigate how employees can be better equipped and empowered to manage their time and productivity.

Dr Larry D Rosen is Professor and Past Chair of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is an international expert on the “psychology of technology”. His latest book is iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us 

I have devoted my career to understanding the “psychology of technology”. As computers have developed from massive desktop models to smartphones, I have observed strange psychological reactions: internet and video-game addiction, smartphone obsession, information overload. As the technology world has changed, the psychology of technology has definitely changed.

In my book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, I chronicle where society has gone with these marvellous devices that promise to make our lives easier. At the same time that technology has provided limitless opportunities, it has also begun to negatively affect our mental and physical health. These devices enhance our lives, but we have formed a psychopathological relationship with them.

A few years ago, we began to investigate these negative effects. We queried parents about their mental and physical health, eating habits, exercise regime and technology and media use, and those of their children. Children, preteens and teenagers who used more technology, played video games and spent significant time online had the worse emotional and physical health. We then developed an online survey where a sample of more than 1,000 adults completed questions that assessed their use of various technologies, including social media, and evaluated clinical symptoms of 24 psychiatric disorders, such as narcissism, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizoid personality disorder.

We found that clinical symptoms of every disorder could be best predicted by some combination of media and technology use. Using social media more often, particularly for managing how you present yourself to other people – posting photos, writing status updates, commenting – predicted more clinical symptoms of most psychological disorders. The study suggests that anyone using technology and media, and particularly social media, is at risk for exhibiting symptoms of psychiatric disorders.

We ask participants in studies to tell us how often they check technological tools such as their smartphone, email and text messages, and tell us how anxious they feel if they cannot check them as often as they would like. Teens and young adults check in with their technology every 15 minutes or less, and if they can’t check in, they get highly anxious.
Technology overexcites our brains in a variety of areas. Our sensory systems are constantly being bombarded by ubiquitous and highly engaging sensory stimulation (sights, sounds, motion, touch). Scans have shown that when our minds are overloaded by technology, blood rushes to brain structures to deliver oxygen needed to stimulate neuronal activity. More neuronal stimulation leads to stronger pathways, which are more easily triggered the next time similar technological activity occurs.

We need to undo this overactive stimulation, get away from technology for short periods of time and perform activities to calm and reset our brains. Too much of our lives are invested in and communicated through our computers and smartphones. Take 10 minutes every hour or two to go outside and look at nature, exercise, listen to music, talk to someone face to face or on the phone, take a bath, laugh, jump, run – do anything that is non-technological and personally calming. Any of these activities can remove the overstimulation from technology in just a few short minutes.