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The Impact of Technology on People Connections

6 June 2017

We live in a hyper-connected world, where everybody is constantly "plugged in", accessing information and services instantly. Is it possible though to let go of modern day distractions such as excessive phone use, commitment overload, and multitasking our way through lengthy to-do lists?

Technology addiction is changing human behaviour, whether that’s in a physical sense, such as texting while driving or crossing the street, or a generation whose preferred digit for pushing a doorbell is their thumb rather than a finger; but also on an emotional / mental level, it is having an impact on the way we relate to other people and communicate both in social situations and the workplace.

Neuroscientists at McGill University have documented the link between an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which regulates the reward hormone dopamine production, and “lights up” when gamblers win a bet, and drug addicts take cocaine. Similarly the sense of accomplishment that comes with dispatching an email, looking something up online or feeling more connected socially when we send a text or check a Twitter feed or Facebook update gives us a “dollop of reward hormones”. Some consider smartphones to be the new cigarettes; people can barely survive even a short haul flight without them these days.

Yet these impersonal connections are having an impact on our mental health. The Mental Health Foundation recently released a report “Surviving or Thriving? The state of the UK's mental health”; where disturbingly only a small minority of people (13%) report living with high levels of good mental health. Nearly two-thirds of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem, this rises to 7 in every 10 women, young adults aged 18-34 and people living alone; suggesting it can’t be good for us to be “on” all the time and lacking real human connection.

Furthermore many people can no longer concentrate on a single task at hand. This doesn’t mean that they are all great multi-taskers, more that there are too many things at home and work that need attention. Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop too, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. People’s lack of ability to concentrate on one single task for a long enough period is a source for worry. Along with short fuses and a lack of patience, it is another side effect from our “plugged in” culture.

So what can be done to change things? I believe little steps can be taken to maximise productivity by turning off email and text alerts and only checking or responding at set times, allowing you to focus on the task at hand. Sir James Dyson revealed of late that he gets just 6 emails a day! Dating back 30 years to when he founded the company, he banned staff from writing memos, and encouraged them to talk to each other instead. 

Similarly, put away phones and laptops during meetings (and social gatherings) and focus on the people in front of you and what they are saying. Dyson still gives new recruits old-fashioned exercise books and urges staff to use them in meetings instead of laptops. Digital may be fast, smart and convenient, but I agree with Mike Taylor’s LinkedIn post, people are more important. If you’re sitting across the table from someone you need them to see that you are fully present.

Technology is certainly an enabling force – businesses are leveraging technology to better serve customers, improve communication, build connections, and streamline collaboration. We have built applications that leverage databases, but there remains a need to connect people – to ideas, to the information they need, to each other. Organisations are built from their people and as such their success will in part be predicated on the wisdom of the crowd and the ensuing culture. How people navigate the fit within the culture of an organisation on an individual level, building transparent interpersonal connections that build trust, can often be the key to success or failure of their work.

So whilst technology helps to keep us connected in one sense I encourage you to remember who is in control. When your digital devices are taking up too much of your life, and the thought of a digital detox leaves you feeling anxious you know it’s time to switch it off and enjoy life unplugged. Humans are social creatures at the end of the day; we don't talk to or look out for each other enough. Sometimes it takes life’s unexpected events like the death of a friend to make you pause and take stock, but I think if we all made an effort and used our smart phones less, and connected to each other more, the world would be a better place.

For more information, please contact Charlotte Gregson.


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