Digital Overload

A recent article in The New York Times was a fascinating study of what happened when a group of scientists took off for the Grand Canyon without their mobile devices for an analog vacation.

Cell phones did not work. There was no Internet access. This trip was an unscientific beginning to what I believe is going to be required research in the future on how heavy use of digital devices and other technology affects our brains.

There were five scientists in the group – some believers and some skeptics, as the article pointed out.

What they were searching for is the answer to the question, does heavy technology use inhibit deep thought and cause anxiety? Can getting away from being connected – such as camping out in the Grand Canyon – help?

There is no doubt in my mind observing young students at USC that depriving them of mobile connectivity causes extreme anxiety. Young people often sleep with their phones, waking up to respond to text messages at times and then returning to sleep even if that sleep is of poor quality.

Students are smart. At the peak of their learning ability. Yet many are tired and as students in bygone eras did, turn to caffeine to stay awake.

Study of the impact of heavy digital use on the brain is the focus of the National Institutes of Health which now has a division to support studies of the parts of the brain involved with focus.

Broadcasters, mobile streamers, content producers and musicians will surely have an interest in their findings.

All of us from the content providers to the end users are experiencing increasing anxiety from digital overload. How simple and perhaps therapeutic it was to only have a radio to listen to on the way to school or work. Now, we text while driving, get the traffic and weather from our phones, check email and other things while making the same commute.

In the 60’s, a listener might curl up with a radio and listen to Jean Shepherd on WOR from 11:15 p.m. until midnight with no other distractions. Now, 45-minutes is a long time to commit to any kind of content.

We cannot begin to understand the most important thing of all unless we study the consumer - how is the end user able to receive that which we create?

Back to the Grand Canyon.

These five scientists experienced a form of withdrawal that ended on the third day. They called it "Third Day Syndrome". I recently experienced some of this myself on vacation at the beach. Those first few days were brutal. I sat there looking at the ocean doing everything I usually do at a desk with digital devices nearby. What a waste of a view.

Here are some observations from the Grand Canyon digital experiment:

1. At least one scientist arrived at the conclusion that he may be turning to his cell phone in moments of boredom. You and I may experience the same thing. I am wearing out my pockets pulling my iPhone out and pushing it back in. Am I bored? Students told me they liked to hold their cell phones in their hands. Made them feel better – more connected as they could glance down for messages and respond in kind.

2. Sometimes the cell phone was used so the user could be anti-social. That’s interesting as mobile devices allow us to be connected by Facebook and Twitter to other "friends" who are not in our company. Could we be shortchanging those around us?

3. It was observed that clear thoughts were the benefit of getting away to enjoy nature without the use of digital devices.

4. One scientist said he could now understand why teenagers decided to text while driving even putting themselves and others in danger.

5. Maybe digital stimulation leads to poor-decision making. Ever since I have owned my iPad and used it to read books at night, I have been getting lousy sleep. I Googled the phenomenon to find that others are having the same problem. Turns out the light emitted from the brilliant iPad screen even at the lowest settings disrupts sleep patterns. I went cold turkey for two weeks with better results. Now I ordered a Kindle for late night reading as much as I like the iPad better. Kindle digital “paper” does not produce the overstimulation of the iPad.

6. Most wanted to eliminate the digital overload to the point of seeing an improvement but not necessarily beyond. This may be the most interesting side effect of all. I, too, want as much digital stimulation in my life without getting brain weary, sleep deprived, rude to others or distracted.

In the end, consumers will have to learn to manage their digital lives better than they do now.

This adds an extra dilemma for content providers who are still new to the game.

But it also presents great opportunities.

The next Jean Shepherd could tuck you in with a 20-minute monologue developed for nighttime digital use whenever your "nighttime" is.

Radio will be used the way toothpaste is now used.

Squeeze your favorite morning personality out of your mobile device and use it on-demand in your “own” morning drive. Hopefully, you won't also spit it out like toothpaste.

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