Interview: Screen Time author Becca Caddy
How do you balance the need for staying in touch with preserving your mental health and enjoying your ‘offline’ life? Chris Price talks to Becca Caddy, the author of Screen Time and former editor of our sister site ShinyShiny.tv about some of the techniques you can use to achieve ‘techquilibrium.’
In the book you refer to techquilibrium? What exactly do you mean by that?
‘Techquilibrium’ is a word I’ve been using since the very early stages of the book. It summarises the state I believe people can find for themselves by following research-backed approaches to having a more balanced relationship with the devices they use every day.
Right now, on one side of the tech debate, you hear apocalyptic calls for ‘digital detoxes’ and deleting all apps. On the other side, there’s the kind of tech evangelism that encourages uncritical acceptance of everything the big tech companies want us to believe about their products and services. Techquilibrium is about finding your own, balanced, middle path.
Do you think screen time/technology will continue to be as important in a post COVID era when we can all socialise in real life (hopefully)?
I think the sudden, widespread necessity of video-calling, both socially and professionally, has helped a lot of people get over the awkwardness and reluctance they felt about it before and embrace these new ways of communicating. During the pandemic, device screens have been the safest and most reliable way to stay connected with friends, family and colleagues, and as in-person time went down, screen time went up.
This past year has shown many people that things like family gatherings, classes, meetings, even TV show reunions, can all be held virtually and with fewer logistical challenges than some in-person gatherings. Whether or not people return to pre-COVID levels of device usage, people have a newfound ease with a wider range of tech-enabled communication options.
How do you feel about social media companies using your data? Is it a price worth paying for convenience or experience?
For many people, the bargain was always implicit – you enter your details on a platform, that platform has your details. But the wider implications of data misuse which multiple scandals in recent years have alerted us to, has created the need for much greater transparency about how this all works and what people are giving away.
But putting the bigger issues aside for a moment, there are many people who would experience genuine isolation without their favourite social media platform, whilst others would devote more time to their offline relationships. It’s not possible to make any hard and fast rules, which is why I’m wary of any calls for mass-deletions of apps and accounts.
Finding out how your data is being used and taking steps to better protect it is of course valuable and necessary going forward, but day to day it’s all about balancing what you get from social media against what you give it.
Why do you think technology isn’t an addiction but more of a habit – both good and bad?
There are individuals and organisations all over the world that diagnose and treat tech, phone, and internet addiction, but the subject of tech addiction is still hotly-debated. Officially, tech addiction doesn’t actually exist – it’s not a medically recognised diagnosis. This means tests and treatments haven’t been standardised, and many experts feel that talking about tech addiction trivialises other types of addiction, like alcohol and drugs.
With this in mind, the advice I would offer based on the studies I researched for the book, is to think of your ‘unhealthy’ tech behaviours as habits. This will give you the language and tools to start making the healthy changes that you want for yourself.
What’s the best way of breaking bad tech habits? Should we all be hiding our phones?
Hiding phones and deleting apps can deliver short-term benefits, but research has shown that, in the long-run, it’s a much better idea to replace unhealthy habits with new ones that offer similar rewards but are more wholesome overall.
So instead of dramatic changes, it’s about making small shifts that are personal to you and your needs. For example, in Screen Time I talk about switching from ‘scrolling through Instagram’ to ‘calling a good friend’ to satisfy your need for connection.
Do you think that tech has the power to alter our mood? And if it does, is that really any different to music which can also affect our mood?
Absolutely tech can affect people’s moods. You can feel comfort and connection from chatting with friends and family on WhatsApp, and effectively de-stress by playing video games. This isn’t opinion either, it’s been measured and proven scientifically. On the other hand, feelings of envy or loneliness can arise from making social comparisons through photo-based platforms like Instagram.
Research has shown that you can ‘catch’ an emotion from someone else in real life, and the same can also happen online. That means people can, without knowing, pick up on other people’s emotions and find themselves feeling the same way. That’s why you might find yourself feeling unexpectedly irate after scrolling through a threaded rant on Twitter, or despondent after catching a Facebook post about a tragic event.
One of the most important ways tech’s mood-altering qualities differ from music is in the levels of exposure you can experience over a very short period of time to a great many points of view, and how many feelings you can unconsciously pick up in the process.
“If we continue to pay attention to how big tech companies treat employees, customers and users, we can compel them to deliver positive change.”
Are you optimistic for the future of technology/screens or does it simply create more problems than it solves?
The future is always hard to pin down, which is why it’s easy (and understandable) to be pessimistic. But I believe that can get in the way of positive progress. We all have far greater power to shape our future than we realise, and can actively participate in making it one to look forward to. Part of that means taking on the problems that are evident today. In the book, we look at digital privacy issues, the intrusion of facial recognition, implicit software biases, and the exacerbation of mental health problems by device usage.
On the high street, we say that people ‘vote with their feet’. In the realm of digital tech, we cast our vote with our attention – where we spend our time and what we spend our time on. If we continue to pay attention to how big tech companies treat employees, customers and users, we can compel them to deliver positive change by withdrawing our attention from their products and services. MySpace was the hottest social media platform in the world, until it simply wasn’t.
As long as people continue to switch onto the power they have, individually and collectively, in a digitally connected world, the future remains reassuringly up for grabs.
What do you think the key takeaway is from reading your book? What would you most like people to learn from it?
I hope that people will come away from Screen Time with the insights and tools to find a more balanced approach to the tech they use every day for work and connection.
One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work, which is why the book lays out the research, discoveries and recommendations in a way that helps people to discover what can work best for them and get their tech use feeling more like a choice and less like a compulsion.
Screen Time by Becca Caddy is now available to buy online. For more details see here: http://hyperurl.co/ScreenTime
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