Distraction epidemic?

Distraction technologyDistractions have always existed, and especially for the young. However, the distractions afforded by technology and especially social networking sites, seem to be approaching not only epidemic proportions, but are akin to addiction. Governments, individuals and companies are taking action.

What is changing?

Facebook now has over 500 million users, 200 million of whom use smartphones to access the site. In total, they spend about 700 billion minutes a month on the site. Over half are aged under 35, and, for many, Facebook is at the centre of their lives.

A range of research has shown the increasing reliance on, preference for and even addiction to new media and technology among young people at school and college. Grades and work are suffering from many hours spent on social networking or gaming, the resulting late nights and incomplete assignments. And, even when not actively engaged, waiting for the ‘next hit’ is also a problem. Many countries have long banned the use of mobile phones while driving, but allow hands free use. However, even holding hands-free conversations distractions are high and 37% less brain activity is focused on the road. Texting is also coming under greater restriction, with growing numbers of states in the USA banning texting. Research indicates a 23 fold increase in the likelihood of an accident while texting and high profile fatal incidents are raising awareness and concern. But smart phones allow us to do far more than texting road safety may become a greater and more high profile issue.

At work distractions are also rising. Personal email and social networking can take an average of at least one hour a day per person. The costs in lost productivity are said to be high – an estimated 1.5% reduction in productivity in the US and a financial cost of about $2.2 billion to UK companies. however, people need a break and a new insight or idea can spark a whole new train of creative thought.

Why is this important?
Distraction is set to rise.

As internet-access goes mobile, the ‘temptation’ will grow. Not only that, we are about to get Augmented Reality on our mobiles which will provide information about our surroundings and enables us to interact with them. How we manage that interaction for the benefit and safety of all will be important. Governments may be tempted to intervene with regulations.

Technology addiction is being taken more seriously – some researchers describe Twitter as ‘neuro-heroin’. Young people who ‘gave up for a day’ exhibited withdrawal symptoms such as being fidgety or worried. Those least able to cope and least likely to have the skills or necessary family support to manage their time may be most at risk, further disadvantaging them in the workforce.

Growing evidence indicates that, although there is also a great deal of counter argument, use of social networking and other new media alters the hard wiring in the brain. We are becoming ‘information hunter gatherers’, pursuing instant gratification rather taking a longer term perspective and delaying gratification e.g. to pursue learning. Health and education services are likely to face growing challenges in how to address these issues.

Controls of various forms are rising. Young people are feeling the need to restrict their own use of social networking. Some are agreeing to use it only one day a month, in order to stay in control, or asking a trusted individual to change their password so they cannot access the sites. Companies are banning the personal use of social networking at work– although there is some debate as to whether this results in productivity gains. Governments are instigating bans on specific types of technologies and their use. In future, insurance companies may insist that phone records are examined to establish usage in the immediate run up to any accident before being willing to make a payment for drivers and pedestrians.

But there are also opportunities. Google has introduced a system for prioritising emails into Urgent/ important, and other so that its Gmail customers can impose more order on their inboxes. Research into Intelligent Vehicles has developed a system which monitors distraction and tiredness in drivers using eye-tracking tools and software. Such systems may soon be used to monitor those who drive for a living – in public transport and freight transport.

Long term we may see bigger changes to transport. This desire to stay in touch plus ever more accessible real-time information and services, plus the introduction of distraction systems and the growing use of vehicle support systems, coupled with the decline in numbers of young people learning to drive together may speed up the acceptance and use of automated, self drive vehicles.

The potential for distraction is set to grow, so too will the need to help individuals learn to manage those distractions and use the technologies for the undoubted benefits that they provide. Technology itself may provide the answers.

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