There were considerably fewer complaints about the personal impact among these expert respondents. But their own lives and observations give testimony that there are ways in which digital life has ill-served some participants. The following anecdotes speak to the themes that the internet has not helped some users’ well-being.

If someone would have told me I was going to spend 10-12 hours in front of a computer most days to do my job, I would never have chosen my current occupation, but it seems like most jobs these days require constant computer use.Carolyn Heinrich

Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public policy, education and economics at Vanderbilt University, wrote, “If someone would have told me I was going to spend 10-12 hours in front of a computer most days to do my job, I would never have chosen my current occupation, but it seems like most jobs these days require constant computer use. We do everything electronically now -communications, writing/documentation, searching for information, etc. – or filling out a survey like this one! I would much rather be having this conversation via a phone survey than sitting and typing at my computer. … Also, we text and email in most of our personal communications now, too, rather than speaking by phone or meeting up in person. I email with a colleague two office doors down from me rather than arranging a meeting. The consequence for me physically is that I am sitting too much and I have chronic back and neck pain, as well as tendonitis, from repeated motion and leaning into a computer monitor. I also worry that social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc., are increasing social anxiety and are as destructive as they are potentially beneficial in their facilitation of communications. And we all never seem to get a break. I wake up in the morning and cringe at how many emails I already have waiting for me to attend to, and the need to keep up takes away from my time in more concentrated and potentially productive endeavors.”

A professor at one of the world’s leading technological universities who is well-known for several decades of research into human-computer interaction wrote, “For the worse: The ritual of a weekly phone call with friends where there seemed like enough ‘space’ to talk about things in a meaningful way has eroded to texting to ‘keep up.’ On the one hand, several of my friends feel more in touch because they are sharing memes, feel they are sharing witty things ‘on the spot,’ but there is less going into depth. We don’t seem to be able to maintain both. That is what is so curious.”

David Ellis, Ph.D., course director of the department of communication studies at York University in Toronto, said, “Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates.

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction.

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “More access to communication and information hasn’t improved lives like we thought it would. In the early years of the internet, it was life-changing to send emails across borders and time zones, to look up encyclopedic answers any time you had a question or connect with family far away via social media. Personally I have stopped using Flickr and Yahoo due to security issues. I have stopped using Facebook because of the unreliable and untrue information shared there (and constant political fighting) and email has grown to a bloated box of messages I really don’t enjoy reading anymore. I do enjoy Instagram (and its fictionalized escape from reality via beautiful photography) but I find myself using social media, email and search much less than I used to. There isn’t enough novelty to want to Google everything I wonder about in a day. I’d get nothing done. I do work in digital, so I make a living from understanding how this all works, and I am dismayed at the way it has changed over the last 20 years. My son is 4 and he believes TV is always available on demand via YouTube (with supervision of course), shopping only happens on Amazon via phone and FaceTime is how phones always work. (He puts his face up to the landline phone like it is a camera). So things have changed and we can’t go back to the way it was years ago. I do think searching for medical information has gotten a lot better (more reliable accurate info) in the last 10 years and generally leads to more educated and adherent patients if the physician is willing to see the relationship as a partnership. While families use texts to stay connected during their hyper-scheduled busy lives, I think people have lost their ability to focus on the needs of others and really listen to another person because of how self-centric social media really is. Sometimes I think people have lost their ability to communicate in-person and have substantial conversations.”

These one-liners from anonymous respondents hit on a number of different themes:

  • “Digital technologies have made it more difficult for me to say on task and devote sustained attention. This interferes with my work productivity.”
  • “I can’t seem to get my brain to calm down and focus. It is all over the place. I can’t concentrate. I just start thinking about what I’m going to do next.”
  • “Increased isolation is a negative effect I feel in my life; the time I spend using digital technologies could well be spent in other more creative and productive ways.”
  • “I am becoming increasingly aware of the way constant access to digital forms of communication can be overwhelming.”
  • “It has become an ever-present overhang on all aspects of life. There is no escape.”
  • “The rise of hatred, the manipulation of politics and so on – these are not distant events with no personal impact.”
  • “Digital life has tipped the balance in favor of John Stuart Mill’s ‘lower pleasures’ and has made engaging in higher-order pleasures more difficult.”
  • “One major impact is the overall decrease in short-term memory, and … what was the question?”
  • “Real-life relationships are less bearable; everyone is so much less interesting with the spoiling of technology.”
  • “Digital technology radically increases expectations for instantaneous responses. This is unhealthy.”
  • “It has become harder to take your eyes off a screen to enjoy life as it’s happening.”
  • “Technology is being driven by business across all areas for money, money, money. Greed has taken over.”
  • “Engagement with technology is starting very young, and we don’t really know what the impact will be.”
  • “We don’t understand what we can trust anymore.”

Here are some diverse answers about the ways digital life hurts the lives of some of the expert respondents.

Alone together

I look at my grandchildren busily playing some game and they are quiet and not ‘bothering’ anyone and I’m a bit afraid of how easy it is to let them just be.Lucretia Walker

Lucretia Walker, a quality-improvement associate for planning and evaluation social services, said, “I am astounded at how difficult it has become to have someone actually look at you when they are speaking. I’m constantly informing my 17-year-old that it used to be rude to talk to someone without even looking at them. I am hyperaware of how easy it seems now to look after young children as long as they are on some type of device. I look at my grandchildren busily playing some game and they are quiet and not ‘bothering’ anyone and I’m a bit afraid of how easy it is to let them just be. This summer, I bought all the young children in my family the ‘old’ toys: marbles, pick-up sticks, jacks, water guns, darts – everything I could think of to get them interested and off their devices. I’ve not heard about the deaths of people because I refuse to spend all my time on Facebook.”

Mark Glaser, founder and executive director of MediaShift, said, “In our family, smartphones, TV, computer, laptops all have a major place in our living space. They are central to communication and entertainment. Because they are always on and always there, it becomes much easier to spend time on our own, in our own world on the devices. The smartphones especially have a way of siloing us off from each other. It takes extra effort to take a few hours, or a day, away from them. We have become obsessed – checking news, checking social media, checking texts at all hours of the day – and it doesn’t feel healthy. Our publication, MediaShift, has covered the idea of ‘technology Sabbaths’ extensively, and they are always popular stories, because society at large is having problems taking time away from technology.”

David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, “I don’t feel that one anecdote could possibly answer this question. Further, the effects I consider most pernicious are ones that I don’t think are visible to most of us, even when we try to reflect. I can name one phenomenon that I have a lot of persistent encounters with. I am a college professor and teach small-to-medium large discussion classes, with a bit of lecturing at times. I do not outlaw digital devices. I have been teaching since the early 2000s. Every year, the number of students who are totally checked out of the class, with their faces buried in laptops, tablets or phones, grows. This is despite any efforts I make to call attention to it, and/or my talking about the issue as an actual topic in class, which I do whenever the topic is appropriate. The most vicious digital advocates push back on this kind of observation with arguments that verge on casuistry [specious reasoning], among them: ‘students have always been checked out’; ‘why don’t you call attention to it?’; ‘what about disabled students who need devices?’; ‘what about all the helpful things students do with devices?’ This kind of response, including from other academics, worries me a great deal for its near-total separation from reality. The number of positive uses I see for devices, DESPITE frequently requesting students to do just that, for example when a major work or idea or principle or law is mentioned – ‘can someone look that up and read to us what it is?,’ etc. – is just totally overwhelmed by the loss of attention on the part of many students. That loss dwarfs anything I ever saw prior to the wide availability of devices (especially phones) in the classroom by a factor of 10. Of course students have always been checked out, but now I routinely have one-third to one-half of a classroom visibly not even being there – not even pretending to be there. The destructiveness of this is obvious and overwhelming, and the fact is that, when I’ve asked informally, most of the students who ARE paying attention and are using devices productively would not mind if I banned devices altogether. These devices are designed to steal attention away from anything other than themselves. Yet I cannot even get many of my colleagues who deal with them on a daily basis to admit that the devices work as they are designed to work, no matter how much evidence there is to support that observation. So rather than a general pushback from educators – as we should have – against the use of these devices in classrooms (with exceptions for where they are necessary, of course), instead I have to fight an uphill and exhausting battle against my own colleagues who deny the stark evidence right before their eyes. Both the phenomenon itself of device use in the classroom, and the wider context of educator resistance – and open hostility -to questioning their use, strike me as emblematic of the harmful effects of digital technology, harmful effects that are not even close to being offset by the positives.”

Erika McGinty, a research scientist based in North America, wrote, “Even limiting my friends on Facebook to people I know or knew well personally, I realize that over time we talk and see each other less now that we can merely ‘like’ or comment on each other’s Facebook pages to give the impression we’re close.”

Tom Massingham, a business owner based in North America, wrote, “Perhaps it is just generational, but I’m not sure, nor am I sure that is sufficient justification, but those in their teens and 20s constantly have their noses in their electronic devices. My anecdote: I pick up a friend’s niece (age 14) after an athletic practice. She hopped in the car, said ‘Hi, Tom,’ and started looking at her phone. This is the generational part: I felt that if I tried to talk with her, I’d be interrupting what she was doing. I drove her home, she said, ‘Thanks’ and hopped out of the car. There was NO interaction between us. No ‘How did practice go?’ or ‘How’s school?’ or anything else. Are we creating a generation that doesn’t speak or acknowledge others in the same room, share feelings or thoughts? I hope not, but I fear that we are.”

Kat Song, communications and digital strategy director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), wrote, “My kids are 14 and 12. Their social and emotional lives have been negatively impacted because they tend to seek less real-life interaction with friends because they can so easily interact with them online.”

Darlene Erhardt, senior information analyst at the University of Rochester, commented, “My nephews and niece have gotten so used to texting their friends that it’s challenging for them to talk face to face and carry on a conversation for any length of time. In order to have quality family time, they are supposed to turn off their phones during dinner. Technology is good in that they can chat with their friends more easily regardless of where they are, the phone can be used to help find them if their parents don’t know where they are (like while shopping) and if they get into a situation that’s uncomfortable it can possibly help to get out discretely (friends checking on them during an event). At the same time there need to be some intelligent guidelines in terms of using the technology and when it’s appropriate to use it and not use it.”

An associate professor based in North America said, “It is hard to be ‘present’ with the omnipresent imposition of technology. When I am with family, technology reminds me of work. When I am alone, technology reminds me of friends I am missing. When I am at work, I cannot be present when technology reminds me of friends and family.”

A senior fellow a major university on the U.S. West Coast commented, “I have seen friends and families where dining together is increasingly rare, even when people are in the same home. It might seem like a media cliché, but even when at the same table people are distracted by their phones and tablets. In the rush for the ‘new thing’ or endorphin-reinforced digital transaction they are forsaking the opportunities to interact with other people. Many of my colleagues are disconnected from those they love by the very technologies they helped to create.”

Danny Gillane, librarian at Lafayette (LA) Public Library, said, “My friends and family stare at their phones while talking to me or others and are constantly checking their smartwatches to see who just texted or updated. My daily life has changed by becoming less personal.”

A professor at a major state university in the United States wrote, “At family gatherings, half of the family are on their digital devices looking at social media and they are not enjoying who’s around them.”

A computer scientist based in North America wrote, “The vast wealth of information available at one’s fingertips can have a negative impact on people’s well-being. Several people close to me have developed an addiction, or near addiction, to internet content. They prefer to interact with others via electronic means rather than face to face. They have a fear of missing out on the latest news or happenings in the world, so they are constantly updating news feeds, blogs, etc. One person has exhibited classic signs of withdrawal when forced to abandon internet access for more than an hour. While I work on the technologies that underpin the internet infrastructure, I have made a concerted effort to maintain more personal, face-to-face time with friends, colleagues and family. The above has convinced me that tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs can be abused and cause people to lose the ability to physically interact with others.”

An anonymous respondent said, “I used to go out to bars sometimes for conversation. Now everybody’s on their phone, and I am doing it too.”

A business development director at a large law firm said, “I have a sister who checks her Facebook feed every hour and responds immediately to nearly every comment that is posted to one of her posts. It seems she is using social media as a substitute for real connection with friends.”

A retired professor based in India wrote, “While it has helped to reach out and has made life easier, it has also reduced warm human context. We communicate through social media rather than spend an evening chatting, building relationships and enjoying company. Increased isolation is a negative effect I feel in my life; the time I spend using digital technologies could well be spent in other more creative and productive ways.”

Distractions and addiction

Beth Kanter, an author, trainer, blogger and speaker based in North America, wrote, “I’m a social media professional/networker, and I noticed over the last five years or so, how much more work I do on my mobile phone. And, that I started to have a behavior addiction in a way to the phone. I was using my iPhone as an alarm clock, but lacked the discipline not to look at CNN or Facebook before bed and first thing upon waking. This happened quite a bit during the election and shortly after it. I found myself not being well-rested, having nightmares, losing ability to focus or concentrate, and wasting a lot of time endlessly scrolling on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I decided to kick the iPhone out of my bedroom and replace it with a moonbeam alarm clock. I also set a goal not to pick up my mobile phone until I had been up for two hours and do offline activities – like walk, read, meditate, or professional writing. I did replace my CNN habit with using Headspace during the day when I feel overwhelmed from using technology. After a month, I noticed a huge difference in my moods, thoughts and productivity. I know that this experiment of one is not scientific, but I do know that there is research that suggests looking at the your mobile phone before bed – which is 7,000 kelvins – is like looking at the sun on a bright day and it tells your brain and body to wake up, disrupts your sleep.”

Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles, author, editor and journalist, said, “A friend of mine, ever the safe driver, was rolling down the road in his favorite old truck, listening to FM radio, when another driver, hyperconnected to digital technology, set about the task of typing a text message, drifted across the center line of the road, and crashed head-on into my friend. The offending driver died at the scene. My friend suffered life-changing injuries, breaking his will and his bank account.”

I deliberately avoid involvement with social media, but even email has become a black hole sucking up my time in unproductive and unrewarding ways.Douglas Massey

Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote, “I deliberately avoid involvement with social media, but even email has become a black hole sucking up my time in unproductive and unrewarding ways. My email is clogged with messages from people and organizations incessantly seeking to capture my attention and time, producing a state of information overload that I find psychologically distressing, not to mention hate mail and personal attacks. I receive 150-200 emails a day and find the time I spend just deleting things I don’t want to see ever-growing and oppressive.”

Gabriel Kahn, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said, “My attention span has been condensed. It’s more difficult to concentrate for long stretches. There is less face-to-face interaction in the home. It’s not good.”

Dana Chisnell, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, wrote, “Being online all the time is stressful and distracting. It has come to feel like I’m performing for the makers of the platform rather than having real conversations. There are too many channels running concurrently, and it’s too hard to keep up. I feel unfocused all the time. Until today, I had three Twitter accounts and a Facebook account and I have been on about a dozen Slack teams. I find being hyperconnected to be time-consuming and distracting. I have read less fiction and spent less time doing personal writing over the last few years. This is largely due to the time I spend on social media. That time has connected me to thousands of interesting people, but it hasn’t brought me closer to any of them. Today, I deactivated one of my Twitter accounts and my Facebook account. I hadn’t been to Facebook in more than a year, and I hadn’t missed it. I learned that my tweets were also forwarded to my Facebook account – a setting I must have made years ago – and that people were responding to them in Facebook. So, to them, it felt like I was present. But I was basically a Facebook bot. So, rather than continue to be rude by not participating in the conversation there, I deactivated the account. By closing the accounts and limiting my time on the internet, especially with social media, I’m hoping for a more productive life and to have closer, more-focused relationships with close friends and family.”

Vicki Davis, an IT director, teacher and podcaster based in North America, said, “My life is more fulfilling since I have fought a battle with internet addiction and won. I have blogged since 2005 and been on Twitter from the early years of the service. My children have grown up with a mom who struggled with internet addiction for many years. There were times I might be busier tweeting than watching the kids make sugar cookies at Christmas. After four or five years, I got a wake-up call. It happened when I saw a woman who was at school helping her son try to fly a kite at the kindergarten ‘fly a kite’ day. The mom had a 5-year-old looking at her, begging, ‘Mom help me fly,’ and the mom had her cellphone in one hand talking to someone about flying the kite as she tried to help her son fly the kite with the other hand. The kite wouldn’t fly. Simply put, the kite wouldn’t fly without her total attention to her son. And as I watched, I saw myself. I saw my own failures. My children needed my complete attention so they could fly. So, that summer, I talked to my husband Kip. I scheduled the tweets for the next two weeks in Buffer and gave Kip my phone for two weeks. I went cold turkey on all social media. At first, it was shocking because I thought of my phone constantly and all those people ‘out there.’ But over the days, I found myself coming back to a healthy center. Since that time, I put down my phone every Sunday. My phone has no place at meal times. When we go on vacation, I will put my phone in ‘airplane’ mode all the time so I can just use it as a camera. I wrote about some of this on a blog post on Edutopia titled ‘Put the cell phone down and be there.’ I used to believe the lie that multitasking is possible. It isn’t. I live life with more intentionality and find myself far more productive than I could have ever dreamed. Instead of getting on social media 20 times a day, I check it once or twice a day and now have a five-day-a-week podcast for educators, blog, speak, joined the choir at church and live life deeper. And as a woman with over 150,000 Twitter followers, it would be easy to live a shallow life full of shallow relationships. But instead I now go deep and am a much happier person. My kids need my full attention to fly. Social media and my smartphone have a place, but not everyplace. I am a human being and not just a human doing. I turn off just about every notification and I jealously guard against interruptions like spam and silly apps that beg for my attention. My attention is finite, and the choices I make about how to spend it are strategic. I take this passion along to help students and teachers understand it but I often feel like it is a losing battle. I see a basketball player brag about Snapchat streaks and wonder what would happen to their game if they did free throws with the same intentionality.”

Anita Salem, a human systems researcher based in North America, commented, “I have email, a smart home, a smart phone and an Apple Watch. When I have a question, I look it up. When I can’t think of the name of a song, I don’t search my memory, I ask Alexa. When I’m lonely, I check Facebook or text a friend. When I take a walk, I’m being told by my calendar that I had better hurry, I’m told by an app that I’m walking too slow and I get a text that gets me thinking about tomorrow. When I’m waiting in line, idling at a stop light, or waiting for a friend, I read texts or the news or a book on my small screen. What do I miss? Discussing questions and figuring things out with a friend. Racking my brain to remember and being satisfied when I do. Getting up off my butt to see or talk to a friend. Walking and listening to the birds and watching my dog pick just the right spot to pee. Stopping and enjoying the pause, the white space in-between, the wide-open space where the world lives.”

David S. H. Rosenthal, retired chief scientist of the LOCKSS Program at Stanford University, said, “‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – George Santayana. Society’s memory has moved from paper, a durable medium, to the Web, an evanescent medium. I have spent the last two decades working to build tools and organizations to make the Web less evanescent. My efforts, and those of others in the field, are increasingly failing to measure up to the task. See my keynote at the year’s Pacific Neighborhood Consortium:”

Meredith P. Goins, a group manager at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), wrote, “My 15-year-old son loves chatting with his friends at night after dinner via a game, but he would get so sucked into the conversation, he would look up and see that it was three hours later and hadn’t done his homework. He has no impulse control. He is impatient – it must load now! – and he doesn’t have strong in-person communication skills, as with many, or so I believe. Kids are great at talking in small groups or via text or via gaming, but are horrible at doing it in a professional setting. For example, my son, and some other kids, have preferred to take a C on a paper instead of an A because they would not stand and present their findings.”

An anonymous respondent said, “The opportunities for distraction afforded by my heavily digitally-mediated lifestyle makes it harder for me to do both the things I want to do and the things I should be doing in at least two ways: I have a much harder time sitting still and doing nothing than I used to, and I also have a much harder time sitting still and doing ONE thing than I used to. I usually find I’m happiest when I am doing one, and only one, thing for an extended period of time. And when I give myself permission to sit still and do nothing for a while, I often find that I naturally transition into doing ONE thing that I really want to do, or remember the ONE thing that I really should be doing right now.”

A professor wrote, “A negative anecdote: Years from now, filmmakers may portray people hunched over their phones the way they today portray people from an earlier era hunched over their cigarettes. I recently ate at a very high-end restaurant to celebrate a special occasion and the people next to us spent the entire evening photographing their food to post it on Instagram, texting people and looking things up online. One of the individuals had her phone in her hand the entire time. I find similar behavior among many. Mid-conversation at parties I’ve seen people pick up their phones and turn away from others around them. I have seen people sitting with each other in restaurants or cafes and staring at their phones rather than talking to each other, and parents ignoring their kids in favor of doodling on their phones (including at beaches, swimming pools, etc.).”

A head of research and instruction at a major U.S. university wrote, “While I’m better-connected to friends and affinity communities in distant locations as an information professional, turning off the flow of content at home in the evenings to focus on my family is a strain in several ways. It limits how much professional and civic reading gets done, it forces the need to create boundaries (for one’s own good) that have been blurred, it raises almost-involuntary questions about what kinds of conversations your partner or friends are having without you or even with you nearby. Without intervention, it’s easy to experience strong affective responses that often don’t get interrogated in helpful ways.”

Erin Valentine, a writer based in North America, wrote, “A simple example of technology affecting well-being is when you’re at the dinner table with your family. Growing up 10 to 15 years ago, there was no distraction from the conversation over the meal. Now phones are on the table and in people’s hands. The conversation can be stunted or just lost due to phones being so easily accessible.”

Melissa Rach, a content consultant based in North America, commented, “Although sometimes you can have real, human interactions on social media, these channels … masquerade as human interactions, but are really competitions of worth. I have been an internet consultant for 20-plus years and I worked on internet projects before that. For me, digital technology has been a fairly rewarding career. My daily life and digital technology are completely intertwined. But honestly, some days I wish they weren’t. I waste so much time watching videos, reading articles and learning trivia that I would have never ‘needed’ to know before the internet. And I spend less time doing things that make a difference. … Before the internet, I used to make lists of things I wanted to look up when I went to the library and only the really important things made the list. Now, I know a lot about many things that are unimportant. More to your point: When I got my first email account in the early 1990s, one of the first things I did was locate a pen pal from Spain I had exchanges with when I was a child. We started emailing every day and then instant messaging. We became really great friends over the digital space. Instead of just getting a letter once a month, we got to know each other’s daily lives. Eventually we met in person. We’re still friends today. I will see her in March. That was the really good side of the internet. However, once social media started and you could find all your long-lost friends (and acquaintances) on Facebook or Twitter, things changed. We figure out what to post based on what will get likes and retweets. It’s about what builds audiences, not what builds relationships. I think back to the 1980s, when my tween self had pen pals all over the world. I would sit down and carefully think about what to write on those expensive airmail sheets. Each person got personal attention, not a form letter, because we didn’t have an option. It might have been communicating with people far away, but it was a really different kind of communication. My high school friends, college friends and I often say things like, ‘Thank goodness the internet didn’t exist then.’ Most youthful shenanigans should be left to memories of the people involved, not the people who watched a performance on YouTube. Failing on YouTube makes you a social pariah. Failing with your friends makes for a good story to laugh about later.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Tech has potential to do great good. I am a genealogist and I use it to help unite families. But the other side is that it is too easy not to selectively help but to be drawn into an artificial world. Facebook and Twitter are addictive, and both aim at showing you only what they think you want to see (since that is how they make money).”

A professor of political science at a major U.S. university said, “With a smartphone near my bed and the parental responsibility to keep abreast of what my teenage children are doing with smartphones, I read far fewer books in the evening. I am more connected to the social media outrage of the day, less in tune with art and culture.”

I am bombarded with news through a number of apps that are constantly sending notifications. As a consequence, I find myself worried about many political issues simultaneously and often distractingly.Anonymous Respondent

An anonymous respondent commented, “I am bombarded with news through a number of apps that are constantly sending notifications. As a consequence, I find myself worried about many political issues simultaneously and often distractingly.”

A professor of computer science at a major U.S. university wrote, “I am a college professor and have seen the performance of my students degrade over the last seven years in terms of hours required to complete the same, essentially, take-home exam. The average time has gone up from 8 hours to 11 without improvement of their final grade range. They do not get better grades while they spend more time.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “When I was a kid, we did not have cellphones. I played with my friends for hours and my parents were fine (I think). Today parents have the technology to track their kids and contact their kids any time they want, which gives kids today a much shorter leash to be kids. The whole reason there is a childhood is to learn how to be your own person and with today’s helicopter parents, it’s really hard to learn to be your own person.”

A pre-law student based in the United States said, “When the blog site Tumblr was super popular, I would stay up until around 5 or 6 in the morning in hopes of seeing everything my ‘dashboard’ had to offer. I had FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. There would be several tabs open at the same time because I would open a new one each time I got back on the site in the morning; hoping I didn’t miss too much while I was sleeping. I was definitely operating on information overload; there was way too much content for me to view, let alone synthesize.”

A college senior and social media professional wrote, “Today, when I try to sit down and read a book, I can’t seem to get my brain to calm down and focus. It is all over the place. I can’t concentrate. I just start thinking about what I’m going to do next. I hate admitting it, but I know that my attention span has shortened, making it harder for me to concentrate whether it’s reading for a class or attempting to read for fun. A few years ago I loved to read. I would finish a book in one or two days and start the next one immediately. I preferred reading books over watching movies. But as I moved into the digital age, as my parents gave me a cellphone and then a computer, I spent less and less time reading books and more time online or on my phone. I am now used to spending my time getting instant answers and skim-reading online, not spending much time on any one thing. I can search a keyword with a few clicks of the keyboard. I don’t spend time actually reading and understanding what I am looking at – even often reading the search engine synopsis of a site to get my answers instead of actually clicking through to the site.”

A college student wrote, “I fear that as technology is perfected to be more addictive and VR and AR advance to envelope everyone that more and more people will fall into those worlds and not necessarily be able to return to that which we now consider to be real. While digital life is good, the downsides are quite troublesome. My brother spent a period between graduating school and obtaining a job idly watching screens and interacting only via them. He spent all day and into the night constantly immersed in this. The TV was always on in the background while he played intense online video games on his laptop, while also continuously texting or messaging others about the game. Technology became his life. It was difficult to separate him from his virtual world and to interest him in physical human interaction. He became grumpy, began sleeping less and less, and stopped dedicating time to his own physical needs. Although it was a scary time, he was later able to pull himself out of it and eventually reconnect with the real world. While he was lucky to be able to quit, some are not able to do so.”

Adam Popescu, a journalist, wrote, “If you’re a writer, a journalist, an artist, it’s your job to engage with the world, to look under the rocks of humanity, and most of all, to read. Read books. In print. It’s a deeper read, without the threat of a distracting tab or a push notification. Read magazines, read newspapers – a range of them, from your state and city and even other nations. And read them deeply. Too few of us do that. ‘Oh, I read plenty,’ you say. If you’re reading based on what’s trending on Facebook or via a link pulled from Twitter, that’s not really reading and it’s time we stopped pretending. That’s feeding at the trough of stupidity. If you’re a writer, a journalist, an artist: stop being part of the disconnect problem. Stop everything. First off, read. Set time aside to really do that and do nothing but that in that period. See if your sleep doesn’t get better, your sex, too, your everything. It helps you think and slow down. If you’re a busy editor – ********, whoever you are – read the emails people send you and respond in a timely manner. This is schoolyard but still true: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Don’t look down at your phone during a meeting, a coffee, a dinner, a date. Be there. Wherever you are. How many photos from your camera roll memorializing your life do you actually look back on? Look up.”

A professor wrote, “Facebook is a relentless resource for a bored mind. There is always something sticky there. It’s the new TV. It is designed to keep you ‘engaged’ and not to offer any obvious work of filtering, even though its algorithms are busily at work.”

A professor based at a top university in the U.S. upper Midwest commented, “I have significantly less time to think or to stay away from work-related issues. Less time for family.”

Family and societal challenges

Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations at the European Broadcasting Union, said, “I’ve worked all my life as a journalist and I believed that this was not a job, but something like a mission. Being a watchdog of democracy is a very exciting and rewarding sensation. Today the job I liked and practiced all of my life still exists only in a few ivory towers that became global (The New York Times, the BBC, some of the public service broadcasters financed by states …). The small independent newspaper where I started doesn’t exist anymore and could never return because their business model doesn’t work. Rather than being considered the watchdog of democracy now, I’m stigmatized as a ‘mediator’; that means that I’m blamed and considered a priori as part of the establishment. Verification of sources and accuracy in reporting seems to be considered a waste of time and the news of non-existent flying donkeys (or, for instance, false statements such as ‘Obama is not a U.S.-born citizen’) get millions of likes thanks to algorithms while the real news of the donkey walking on the hill doesn’t get any. To remediate the most evident damages of this, now hundreds of non-skilled youngsters hungry for (badly paid) jobs are hired and gathered in cold hangars to ‘take down’ the most damaging ‘news’ in an ‘ex-post’ exercise with no sense, no future and no accountability to society. If this is the future of the journalistic career, I will encourage my children not to get into it.”

Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote, “It’s a bit depressing to look at the problems of online life through my everyday experiences interacting with my daughter, who is in middle school. Despite everything that I know about the problems of continuous partial attention, corporate surveillance and the idealized personas that are curated online, I suspect I don’t do enough to address them. I’m not fully checking my knowledge at the door. And, of course, my intentions are good. But engineered addiction is more powerful than cautionary discourse, and social pressures readily tug on heartstrings.”

Jennifer deWinter, an associate professor of rhetoric and a director of interactive media and game development, said, “Email. I remember working as a professor before email and after email. The insidious belief that we should always be available, always ready to answer questions for anyone about anything, is one of the most highly detrimental changes that I have seen. The same can be said about whatever dominant electronic communication technology a community uses. I think, too, about raising my two children. And – this will sound ironic? counterintuitive? – but I teach game development in a well-ranked university games program while I simultaneously limit my children’s time on games. My 9-year-old son said it best recently: He told me that when he plays too many video games, he starts to hate any interruption, anyone who gets in his way. While this is probably true of anyone in a flow state of being deeply immersed, games have a way to constantly provide a well-timed dopamine hit so that the player always craves more. Research bears this out. I don’t know what to do with this, because I don’t demonize the technologies of our world. I am constantly watching and evaluating their impact, nevertheless.”

A professor in media studies at a Norwegian university commented, “When we are on vacation in the mountains with no internet or cell coverage, the mood of the whole family improves. We are more together and present in the moment.”

A research leader at one of the top-five global technology companies said, “Digital technology allows us to follow our children’s school progress in detail. This enables parents to detect signs that a child is having trouble and administrators to detect signs that a teacher is not performing effectively. It also increases the stress on children and teachers who realize they are constantly observed and no longer have the same opportunities to correct their performance on their own. It pushes teachers to make every grade nuance explicit, ramping up the stress for students and parents. Such double-edged swords are common, and we don’t have any idea how to evaluate the net impact.”

A pre-law student said, “Anxiety and depression have been on the rise in those within my generation. I was recently diagnosed with mild depression. I believe that being hyperconnected within this digital life could be a root of the issue. I find myself, my mood and thoughts, influenced tremendously by scrolling mindlessly on social media platforms and by the content that I come across daily, even hourly. It has become increasingly hard to not constantly compare the reality of my life with those reflected though my iPhone screen and – even though I am aware of the false reality of the profiles I come across – it is hard not to have my own self-esteem and confidence plummet when I come across a perfectly tailored life. Netflix and all of the streaming sites have proven to be hazardous for my productivity, as I have become effortlessly addicted to them as a means of distraction and procrastination. I also see this constant hyperconnectedness impacting my friends. It worries me, truly does, to see the impact it is having on my family, as my parents are constantly struggling to catch up to the newest innovation that impacts their daily lives, and my little sister has seemingly found life behind a screen. She has adapted so quickly to life with an iPhone that she does not even remember ever playing with the traditional toys she once enjoyed.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Recently I participated in a family reunion attended by a 2-year-old child. When the child’s behaviour became too disruptive of adult conversation, she was given a tablet and shown the movie Frozen. The child became mesmerized and non-verbal, almost in a trance-like state. I compare this to when my children were young and were entertained by non-digital distractions – human contact, arts and crafts, a story – and I wonder what the impact of this very early digital exposure will be. Engagement with technology is starting very young, and we don’t really know what the impact will be.”

An anonymous respondent said, “I recently did some research into the digital lives of parents and teens in Japan to mirror research that was done in the U.S. It is very clear that when you compare these two cultures there is more similarity than difference in the ways digital technology is reshaping our most intimate relationships. In many of the families we heard from, mobile devices and the content on them is a source of anxiety, conflict and concern. Parents are struggling with their own use and overuse of these devices as they are monitoring the use in their children, creating a new parenting challenge. One of the most alarming bits of data from this study was the number of teens who reported that they sometimes felt their cellphone was more important to their parents than they were – 20%. This is just not a message we want to send our children.”

A North American professor wrote, “There is almost no one with whom I regularly interact solely face to face. I spend an inordinate amount of time with digital technology. I communicate via email, use the internet in my research and teaching, use social media for teaching, read the news online and shop online.”

An executive for a major internet business wrote, “The easy availability of information makes it so much easier for me and my kids to, say, look at a dictionary to gain a basic understanding of a topic. This is why Wikipedia is so useful. But the profusion of digitally enabled entertainment – movies, YouTube, streaming music, video games, and so on – has not, on balance, been good for my kids. They insist on being glued to their screens, and much of what they consume is, in the words of Newton Minnow (talking about TV in the early 1960s) a ‘vast wasteland.’ Like nearly every medium, like radio and TV, the internet was supposed to herald an era of great information access, which would enable better democratic participation. Instead, it’s become – in many corners – a cesspool, with nearly zero information value. This is not true of the whole Net. But now that Net neutrality is on the way out, the internet fast lane will be devoted to dreck, not to socially useful information.”

Jason Abbott, professor of political science at the University of Louisville, said, “My children are increasingly incapable of spending quiet time alone, appear more bored and easily distracted from tasks. As an adult I find there is a growing pressure to always be available online and to respond immediately to messages and requests.”

Gail Brown, an instructional designer in Australia, wrote, “A young person I know began cutting himself when an online relationship with a girl suddenly ended. This was a person he had never even met, nor did he really know that anything she posted was real or truthful. Yes, lies can happen in the real world, but such lies are much more difficult to continue than those that are shared online.”

I see all around me how people’s self-esteem is now wrapped up with their online social activity. This is very problematic for our inner, ethical lives.Fay Niker

Fay Niker, postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society, wrote, “I see all around me how people’s self-esteem is now wrapped up with their online social activity. This is very problematic for our inner, ethical lives.”

Paul Manning, a manager, commented, “I have seen one of my children walk away from a difficult interaction rather than work it out. She did so quietly and without the other person being aware until it was too late. Another one of my children cannot live without her cellphone because, she says, ‘I can have six to eight conversations at the same time.’ This same child cannot stand when there is silence or she lacks the ability to interact in a large crowd. She cannot focus on one person at a time or participate in a group conversation that requires listening. While digital life has positive benefits, due to the immediate exchanges of information and the short length of the exchanges, sometimes critical information is assumed.”

Tanja Cupples Meece, a homeschool educator based in North America, wrote, “I am a student and an educator as well as a freelance writer. I teach online courses and spend more time checking to see if I am doing the teaching properly, rather than actually teaching. It is also a family problem, my husband also spends a great deal of time on his phone, and if both of us are on our phones, our grandson acts out. He isn’t getting the best of us.”

A professor at a college in North America commented, “I have an 11-year-old child who is pulled into technology in ways that can be beneficial but it is also shaping his childhood in ways that are concerning. I am concerned about this new generation’s capacities to balance technology activities when they are so ever-present.”

A research scientist said, “One of the most palpable changes is how much digital technology has changed the dating landscape and our approach to relationships – especially for those of us who are younger (I’m in my late 20s). We’ve spent most of our romantic lives with online dating at least being an option. Just as having the constant stimulation of social media available makes it harder to commit to something like reading a book, the constant availability of new partners lowers the threshold for starting something new, which makes people less inclined to stick through the hard parts and build something lasting with a partner. It makes our dating more conservative also – we read through each other’s profiles thinking we’re selecting better matches, but in taking the element of chance out of the equation we miss out on the opportunity to date people different from ourselves who could potentially be very good for us, whom we might have unexpected chemistry with, etc.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “I’ve grown weary of the oversharing that occurs on social media. When people break up, get engaged, have children, etc., seeing the photos and status changes can be overwhelming and disheartening when you’re in a certain emotional state and don’t want to take it all in.”

Toxic social media

John Markoff, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and longtime technology writer at The New York Times, said, “Reading Twitter at times makes me almost clinically depressed. I have done what I can to try to break the habit with only marginal success to date. Frequently it feels like I am drinking from a fire hose of polluted water.”

Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “Digital technology has greatly enhanced my life over the past decade. Just over 10 years ago, I was living abroad for the first time and began to use blogging and nascent social media platforms as a way to connect with my friends and family back home. This led to surprising connections with individuals all over the world and friendships that last to this day. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to account for all of the friends I’ve made – and later met ‘in real life’ – through social media, nor the career and other opportunities that have unfolded for me through these mediums. My life, my career, wouldn’t have been possible before the age of digital connectivity. All good things must come to an end, however, and those social media environments that once led to beautiful opportunities and friendships have now become toxic. In spaces where I was once likely to receive positive feedback, I now face threats and harassment on a daily basis. I’m still unsure whether it’s us, or the architecture of these spaces, or perhaps, that they’re simply not scalable.”

Raymond Hogler, a professor of management at Colorado State University, wrote, “People consume content that is self-selected, ideologically conformist and socially reinforcing. That trend will continue. I’ve observed, along with many other people, that the ubiquitous cellphone is displacing social interaction. As a teacher, I see students fixated on their phones in public areas, classrooms and study rooms. I think this phenomenon is tremendously isolating and divisive.”

Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist with expertise in social influence, persuasion and digital communication and a researcher at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, wrote, “During the 2016 presidential election, I ended up losing many friends on social media because of all the divisiveness caused by the spread of misinformation through fake news from fringe news sources and Russian interference. In particular, I recall pasting a link from The New York Times on Facebook. The article ranked the candidates on honesty. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton was the most honest and Donald Trump was the least honest. Some of my Republican friends thought this was a joke and laughed in response to it. This caused a pretty nasty fight between some of my academic friends and the people who laughed, and I had to shut the conversation down. I ended up unfriending a couple of my Republican friends. It made me sad, distressed and confused, and my Facebook use never returned to pre-2016 levels because these things kept happening. Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to connect with people using non-text-based options (such as phone calls and face-to-face visits).”

Peter Levine, associate dean of Tisch College at Tufts University, said, “I have shifted from reading news stories about a wide range of topics in a small number of publications to obsessively following a few breaking stories on many media platforms, most of which basically repeat the same information. This shift heightens my anxiety, limits my learning and wastes time. Although it’s my own fault, the new digital media landscape enables it.”

Steven Polunsky, a research scientist at Texas A&M University, wrote, “My high school reunion was held as we approached the 2016 elections and was almost canceled due to high emotions and anger, fed by internet misinformation combined with an organized effort to sow mistrust of institutions like the press, police and the judiciary.”

Brittany Smith, a digital marketing consultant based in North America, said, “Overall, social media now takes away from my sense of well-being, and I try to limit my exposure to it. As a professional digital marketer this has been a hard realization to come to. Initially, platforms such as Facebook helped me stay in touch with the people I care about. As more and more people joined Facebook and the algorithm changed I found that I was seeing less and less from them. Facebook was filled with updates from people who weren’t close to me, and because of our tendency to share happy things that make us look good, I would come away feeling negative about my life.”

Flynn Ross, associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine, wrote, “As the mother of two adolescent girls, I confront on a daily basis the potential for social media to help my daughters be informed global citizens who have access to [all] sorts of first-hand perspectives, as well as their safety in terms of who has access to what information about them including their images and how their online profiles can be used in their futures.”

A professor at a major state university in the United States who said digital life will be mostly harmful in the next decade wrote, “The best example of impact on digital life I can think of is the ongoing effects of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the role social media apparently played in determining its outcome.”

A writer/editor based in North America, wrote, “For me, the internet has gone from being a place where I could be myself, to a place where I must carefully analyze every bit of behavior. There is also a lot I do online that I would rather not do. I hate Facebook, but I have to stay a member to keep up with events in many of my friends’ and family’s lives. I have to use LinkedIn for work, but I deal with a stalker, who greatly appreciates all that information (which I must keep public, if I’m to expect any potential clients to take me seriously). What was fun is now stressful.”

A general manager commented, “A member of my family who is in her early 60s has seen her general contentment with life decline as her consumption of social media has risen. In the past, her mornings, for example, meant reading the newspaper and listening to the radio. Even when the news was bad, she nonetheless was generally hopeful and optimistic. Now, she checks her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while still in bed and by the time she comes downstairs in the morning, her mood for the day is already defined. More often than not, that mood is a negative one (anger, anxiety, fear, stress, pessimism, etc.) than a positive one. While this family member recognizes that her now hyperconnected life is bad for her, she has been unable to moderate her digital consumption throughout the day. This is now having a negative impact on her relationships with other family members.”

An anonymous respondent said, “My internet service provider throttles many websites and interjects ads into others. And this was before the end of net neutrality. While it is easier to contact friends and family, most social media sites seem to be fragmenting civil society by creating information and entertainment bubbles for like-minded people. Uber is convenient but it doesn’t provide a living wage for drivers.”

A cybersecurity entrepreneur, coach and investor wrote, “There appears to be an increasing population of people who mistake social media presence with professional achievement. This is confusing to new entrants into the industry. Simultaneously, there seem to be increasingly prevalent moral panics. These are often followed by fervent attempts to demonstrate one’s alignment, in the hopes of either gaining favor or avoiding opprobrium for being insufficiently ‘aware.’ People attempting to remain on task in professional contexts risk censure if they aren’t visibly participating in the cause of the day.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “Three and a half years ago there was a school shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Seven people were killed, including the shooter Elliot Rodger. Within a day, reporters found a chilling YouTube video where Rodger vowed ‘retribution’ for a lifetime of sexual rejection. My social network was full of posts about this video and the need for gun control. I understand the outrage – it’s certainly justified – but it felt like there was no room for anyone to express any other feelings on social media. And I needed to express other feelings. I had taught some UCSB students the prior year. After I saw there was a shooting I had no idea if some of my favorite former students were dead. Either way I had to deal with the shock that my students could be shot and killed around campus. When I talked to my family or my friends outside of social media, they were able to show empathy for what I was feeling. That’s a credit to my family and friends, but also says something about how people share feelings on social networking sites. When I tried to reach out and share my experience on Facebook, I was judged for not immediately leaping to outrage. I could sense such a profound lack of empathy that I logged off for a few days. This seems to be a common pattern after traumatic events. People who want to share their outrage leap to social media to get things off their chest, blocking out anyone who needs a more empathetic back-and-forth to deal with the trauma.”
An anonymous respondent commented, “My half sister – in her early 30s – abandoned Facebook having found it made her miserable and envious. Her well-being has improved dramatically.”

The adults in my life are also hyperconnected and are on their devices right before sleep and upon waking up. The decrease of human interaction is evident.Anonymous respondent

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Slices of digital life: Waiting for people to finish tapping on devices before or during a conversation. A relative explaining how the Boston Marathon bombing was a hoax and citing online posts as support. Tinder. The fact that nothing happened after [the] Occupy Wall Street demonstration. In Egypt, [the Arab Spring] demonstrations led to replacing one dictator with another.”

An associate professor at a U.S. university said, “Family members, especially children, are addicted to their devices. In some cases, the lack of social skills is evident. The adults in my life are also hyperconnected and are on their devices right before sleep and upon waking up. The decrease of human interaction is evident. I try to stay as disconnected as possible. I am much happier when I am not on Facebook. When I do check it (it is handy for keeping up with people) I am compelled to continue to look through it, and I spend too much time on it.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Digital tech has made it infinitely easier to shop and pay bills, but it has NOT addressed protection of American security from foreign ‘meddling’ (Russia, et al.), and it has not addressed protection of individuals from hacking and similar mispursuits.”
A retired public opinion researcher wrote, “I have cancelled my Facebook page because uninvited and socially untested information, opinions and behaviors had the potential to influence my own political (as in polis) social contracts.”

Never-ending work with new demands and expectations

Lori Laurent Smith, an entrepreneur based in North America, commented, “The promise of digital technology was to make our lives easier, freeing our time to do the things we wanted to do. My reality has been the opposite. There is so much more than I ever imagined that I still want to learn, research and do. Also I spend a ridiculous amount of time learning how to set up a blog, upgrade memory in a laptop, take better pictures, write meaningfully in 140 characters, learning how to use new apps, writing comments and feedback, and reading millions of pages of content. I was spending a disproportionate amount of time using the internet and interacting with people online more than I did with my husband, daughters and friends in real life. As this realization has slowly dawned on me in recent years, I’ve set timers to limit my time online when my family is around and when anyone needs me, I immediately shut down what I was doing online to give them my full attention. I turn off my phone regularly when I’m hanging out with my friends and family in real life (which annoys people trying to get in touch but it’s my life).”

Annette Markham, professor of information studies and digital design at Aarhus University in Denmark, said, “I exemplify the hyperconnectivity of knowledge workers. At this stage of my career, where I network internationally with colleagues, work with dozens of students at a time, and administer multiple projects and people, I simply cannot be disconnected. I feel this emotionally and bodily every single day. My wrists hurt frequently from ongoing carpel tunnel syndrome; I suffer from chronic back pain that we colloquially call ‘academic back.’ I feel increasing pressure – as well as a lure – to build my international reputation as a social and digital media expert through intensive connectivity, continuous publishing and strategic self-branding on multiple platforms. I feel like this is an all-or-nothing situation. Sometimes I just feel exhausted. Other times, I feel like one of thousands of ants trapped in a barrel filling up with water and we’re all clambering on top of others to keep from drowning. In the early 2000s, I could ask my media students to disconnect for one week. Around 2012, I could get them to disconnect for 48 hours. Now, maybe one in 20 will be able to disconnect for 24 hours. As more services enter the electronic-only sphere, people are required to be connected, to know how to access and use these services effectively. It means being online. Those of us who have been obsessively online for 20 years may be accustomed to an always-on lifestyle and have learned how to live with it. But knowing how to deal with hyperconnectivity is not the same as being unaffected by it. We – and by that, I mean myself and many of my friends and colleagues in the knowledge or tech industry – pay a heavy price. Sustained stress leads to chronic health issues. Continuous exposure to millions of people personally reacting to crisis after crisis on Twitter leaves many of us feeling sad, angry and hopeless. But we seem unable to stop checking our newsfeeds. The negative energy feeds on itself. After the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, almost all of my colleagues showed classic signs of depression. Worse, we no longer find it surprising to feel sad, angry and depressed. We may not be immured to the violence this constant exposure does to our bodies, minds and souls, but we don’t fight it either. I could say more, but you get the point.”

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media at City University of New York, said, “Right now, I’m interested in the mental health crises being experienced by the young men who took BJ Fogg’s captology classes, implemented the strategies at Facebook and Snapchat and are now realizing how much mental, psychological and social destruction they have caused.”

Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “I’m not sure that email is such a great thing. One colleague doesn’t use email and seems to be extremely productive. I spend half the day on it. Much of that half would have been spent on productive thinking or teaching in the old days.”

The biggest change to daily life is the difficulty in having a solid block of uninterrupted time in one’s day to think… Even if I am not looking at my email or my phone, I know they are there and it is distracting.Thad Hall

Thad Hall, research scientist and co-author of the forthcoming book “Politics for a Connected American Public,” wrote, “The biggest change to daily life is the difficulty in having a solid block of uninterrupted time in one’s day to think. When communications were primarily by phone or mail – or even when Wi-Fi/smartphones were not ubiquitous and it was easy to get away with a laptop without being constantly connected – it was possible to separate yourself from the digital world. Even writing this, I am aware of my phone next to me and that my email alerts are on, and it is hard to avoid being mentally distracted. Even if I am not looking at my email or my phone, I know they are there and it is distracting.”

Meg Mott, a professor of politics at Marlboro College, said, “Early in my teaching career, I thought that teachers should be judged by their response time to emails. Perhaps this was my way of proving myself worthy of joining an esteemed faculty. I may not have read Plato’s ‘Republic’ in the original, but I could check my email on an hourly basis. At a certain point I realized that speed was working against me. My replies may have been prompt but the tone was unmistakably crabby. This was particularly true during times when I was trying to carve out time to work on my own research. It took a rather dramatic change in my lifestyle to unhook myself from my 24-hour inbox. Suffice it to say that a yurt and an outhouse were involved. The effect on my stress level was immediate. In order to check my email I had to be in my office during a time when I was not teaching. Not surprisingly, even though I was less available to my students, the teaching relationship greatly improved.”

An associate professor at a major university in the U.S. Midwest said, “The divide between work and life, and the time I spend not connected, is increasingly non-existent. My phone and computer are always by my side. I might be working from home to my office with only a 15-minute gap in between. During that gap, I often check email when at a red light. Even if I bike, I am listening to something streaming on my phone. I have communicated via email with my spouse. I have also texted my children to come to dinner in order to easily get their attention. I am hyperconnected and always responding to the first thing rather than looking around me or making decisions that take time and thought. I have back problems and posture-alignment problems as a result of extended time in front of a multitude of screens.”

A research scientist said, “Rather than reading a book or magazine on my commute, I do things like check Facebook and look at emails that I can’t easily respond to. Rather than arriving at work refreshed or arriving home with some space from work, it all comes with me.”

A college administrator based in North America said, “In terms of personal impact, I have developed the habit of taking more work home, which often negatively impacts family interactions and leads to home-based stress development. Further, it has reduced the time for exercise and leisure – all of which can negatively impact physical, emotional and mental health.”

A co-founder of an institute studying values wrote, “Work is now a 24/7 ordeal.”

A professor emerita of public policy at a major U.S. private university said, “I am becoming increasingly aware of the way constant access to digital forms of communication can be overwhelming. I think I’m relatively politically/socially aware, but the current (growing) bombardment of email appeals for political action or donations to address a multitude of apparently apocalyptic problems may at some point numb my senses.”

Changing norms about speedy responses and engagement

Renee Dietrich, a retired professor, commented, “The main change is that people expect a response faster. There is not much time for reflection or analysis.”

A professor at New York University wrote, “My professorial title should be ‘professor of email.'”

A North American entrepreneur wrote, “There have been many instances when I haven’t responded on Facebook in a way that someone felt I should, resulting in resentment. There have been other times when I’ve been ‘stuck online’ and then late for real-world activities. There have been lots of times where information presented sounded good and healthy but upon research turned out to be dangerous advice.”

A CEO of a publishing house said, “While digital technology has certainly connected me with old friends and family members, it’s not like we really know these people. I now have former classmates asking me for money, I also know things about relatives and their political beliefs that make me never want to spend time with them. So as much as it brings people together, it also drives wedges. I’m not proud of the contempt I feel for some former friends after reading their Facebook posts, but nor can I deny it.”

A research scientist said, “Checking Facebook has become a chore, yet I must do this regularly to shore up ties with friends and family. As a woman, I’m culturally conditioned to do so.”

The attention economy and surveillance society

Jeremy Blackburn, a computing sciences professor who specializes in the study of the impacts of digital life, wrote, “My children (girls, 2 and 7) spend significant amounts of time on the internet (probably too much, but, hey, I practice what I preach). Bottom line: Google and Amazon probably know more about their preferences than I do, and could probably influence them in ways that I can’t even fathom. To that end, my eldest daughter really enjoys one particular YouTube channel, which is entirely appropriate for her (FGTV), however, she has trouble recognizing that the channel is a *business.* Thus, she will on occasion come to us and ask to do one of the absurd things that the channel operators do. For example: A giant food fight. My daughter simply does not have the maturity to fully understand that these people are making their livelihood with their videos, that they are edited in such a way as to make them entertaining, and that what she sees is not their normal familial activities. We have spent a lot of time discussing this with her, but it still pops up on occasion. Perhaps this is an indication that we are not properly regulating the online content she consumes, but I suspect that, even though we provide her with a fair amount of freedom, we are much more stringent than the ‘average’ parents. I believe that this general idea extends to teens and adults as well. We are inundated with content that represents a *curated* slice of our contacts life online. This slice is non-representative of reality, and can lead to some serious misconceptions about how other people live. This was much less of an issue before the ubiquity of the Web, and my gut feeling is that it will grow unabated for quite some time.”

Marcus Foth, professor of urban informatics at Queensland University of Technology, wrote, “We need to stop using digital technology for the blind and undirected acceleration of neoliberal growth expectations and instead reintroduce a moral compass of compassion and ecological thinking. While I see the potential of digital technology to do great things for society, I have strong reservations about how it is used and adopted in everyday life in pursuit of neoliberal growth trajectories that are further fueled by the big data analytics craze. Critical humanities research is urgently needed to influence the technocratic and engineering driven culture to solve humankind’s problems. In my personal experience, I lament seeing how great research outcomes are increasingly being reviewed by bean counters in a quantitative assessment of research performance that reduces research to numbers: grant income, Ph.D. completions and number of articles in Q1 journals. Big data is killing the zest of aspirational researchers who wanted to change the world for the better and are now just reduced to a row in a spreadsheet. Speaking of well-being, many just quit.”

If I, a social scientist, cannot resist this temptation, what is happening to our children and our children’s children?Deborah Coe

Deborah Coe, a coordinator of research services based in the U.S., said, “I hate to admit this, but I spend a ridiculous amount of time on my cellphone, checking emails, Facebook, Pinterest, the news and playing games, on a daily basis. And I do it to the point of choosing to not go outdoors on a beautiful day, or to the point of getting blurry vision and ignoring the warning signs that I’ve overdone it. Here’s my question: If I, a social scientist, cannot resist this temptation, what is happening to our children and our children’s children?”

A professor based in North America said, “I want to share a short excerpt from Chapter 1 of Frischmann and Selinger’s ‘Re-Engineering Humanity’ (Cambridge, April 2018): ‘Last year, my first grader came home after school very excited. ‘Dad, I won. I mean, I’ve been picked. I get a new watch.’ ‘That’s great,’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He quickly rattled off something about being one of the kids in his class who was selected to wear a new watch for gym class.

“A day or two later, I received the following letter in the mail from the school district: ‘Dear Parents/Guardians, Your child has been selected to be among the first group of students to participate in an exciting new initiative made possible by our recent $1.5 million PEP [physical education program] Grant. We have added activity watches to the K-12 physical education program so that we can assess how the PEP grant impacts students’ physical activity in [the school district]. We are periodically selecting groups of students at random to wear activity watches on their wrists to track daily activity time. One of the goals of our program is to see that students get the recommended amount of physical activity each day (60 minutes). As part of a quality physical education program, the use of activity watches can motivate students to challenge themselves to become more physically active. For the students selected to participate in this first group, we will be distributing activity watches starting Jan. 13 for students to wear before, during, after school and over the weekend until Tuesday, Jan. 21. We ask that students do not take off the watch once it’s on their wrist. They should sleep, even shower with the watch in place. There are no buttons to push or need to touch the watch, as it is pre-programmed to record and store each day of activity time. At the end of the nine days, each family will be able to access a report of their child’s activity, and you are welcome to consult with your child’s physical education teacher about what you learn and ways to further support your child’s physical health and fitness. In addition, the group’s combined information will be used to provide baseline data on student physical activity in [the school district]. In closing, I invite you to join me and your child’s physical education teacher in motivating your family to participate in physical activity together. If you should have any questions about this new technology, please do not hesitate to contact your child’s physical education teacher. Yours in health, XXXX XXXXXXXX Supervisor of Health, Physical Education and Nursing Services.’

“When I read the letter, I went ballistic. Initially, I wondered about various privacy issues: Who, what, where, when, how and why? With regard to collection, sharing, use and storage of data about kids. The letter did not even vaguely suggest that parents and their children could opt out, much less that their consent was required. Even if it had, it couldn’t be informed consent because there were so many questions left unanswered. I also wondered whether the school district had gone through some form of institutional review board (IRB) process. Had someone, anyone considered the ethical questions? I read the letter again but got stuck on: ‘We ask that students do not take off the watch once it’s on their wrist. They should sleep, even shower with the watch in place.’ Seriously, bath time and bedtime surveillance! The letter made me think of one of those Nigerian bank scam emails that go straight into my spam folder. Such trickery! I thought.

“I remembered how my son had come home so excited. The smile on his face and joy in his voice were unforgettable. It was worse than an email scam. They had worked him deeply, getting him hooked. He was so incredibly happy to have been selected, to be part of this new fitness program, to be a leader. How could a parent not be equally excited? Most were, but not me. I contacted someone at the PTA, spoke with the supervisor of health, wrote a letter to the school district superintendent, and eventually had some meetings with the general counsel for the school district.

“The program is like so many being adopted in school districts across the country – well-intentioned, aimed at a real problem (obesity), financed in an age of incredibly limited and still shrinking budgets and elevated by the promise of efficiency that accompanies new technologies. What caught people’s attention most was a line from the letter I sent to the superintendent: ‘I have serious concerns about this program and worry that the school district hasn’t fully considered the implications of implementing a child-surveillance program like this.’ No one previously had called it ‘child-surveillance.’ All of a sudden, the creepiness of bath time and bedtime surveillance sunk in. Naturally, this triggered familiar privacy concerns. The term ‘surveillance’ generated a visceral reaction and was an effective means for getting people to stop and think.

“Up to that point, no one seemed to have done so for several obvious reasons. People trust the school district and love technology. The salient problem of obesity weighs heavily on the community; activity watches seem to be a less intrusive means for addressing the problem. People obtain information about their activity levels and then are better able to adjust their behaviour and improve fitness. They can do so on their own, as a family, or in consultation with the physical education teacher. Plus, it was funded by a federal grant. The activity watch program presents substantial upside with little or no downside, an easy cost-benefit analysis. For most people, it seems like one of those rare win-win scenarios. After my intervention, very little changed; better disclosure and informed consent apparently would fix everything. These limited privacy concerns fall woefully short of acknowledging the full power of techno-social engineering. The 24/7 data collection and the lack of informed consent are real problems. But the stakes run much deeper.”

Sleep problems and stirred-up woes

Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills known as an international expert on the psychology of technology, wrote, “Since publishing a journal article on the impact of technology on sleep, I have made a conscious effort to silence my phone one hour prior to bedtime, and it has improved my sleep and alertness during the day.”

Time previously spent dealing with boredom – day dreaming, contemplating, etc. – is now spent tethered to one’s phone, which is not relaxing and eventually makes my thumbs hurt.A North American professor

An attorney based in North America wrote, “There is a loss of, and interruption of sleep. There are conflicts over failure to respond in what is now seen to be a ‘timely’ fashion. There is increasing personal impatience. The effects are especially strong on teenagers.”

A communications professional based in North America said, “My sleep patterns have been negatively impacted.”

A North American professor wrote, “Time previously spent dealing with boredom – day dreaming, contemplating, etc. – is now spent tethered to one’s phone, which is not relaxing and eventually makes my thumbs hurt.”

General concerns and complaints

Yasmin Ibrahim, an associate professor of international business and communications at Queen Mary University of London, said, “The problem is as digital technologies become seamlessly part of our everyday engagement and mode of living – we may not question our actions or decisions we make online. Making the internet a healthy space means analysing our modes of being and everyday engagements in the digital realm and this itself can be stressful. But keeping the internet a space of ideals requires us to do precisely that; to question every action and think about the internet architecture and how our activities are connected to a wider digital ecology of producing and consuming.”

Riel Miller, team leader of futures literacy at UNESCO, said, “Digital life should be pull not push. Demand-driven. What it hasn’t yet been able to deliver on is the capacity to know why, when and how to pull. Without the curiosity engine configured for pull’s life of surprise we suffer under the regime of push’s desperate need for certainty, diminishing what the Net can deliver, even if it allows much more spontaneity.”

Mike Caprio, innovation consultant for Brainewave Consulting, said, “I have consciously made choices to limit the intrusion of my digital life into my real life. I no longer carry a smartphone, I only occasionally carry a flip phone when I know I am going to need to be reached or make calls. I only allow notifications from computers or tablets to interrupt me during work hours. I deleted my Facebook account in 2013. While this has reduced the number of interactions with friends, family and colleagues, I feel much more connected to my life and in my relationships.”

Scott Johns, a high school teacher, commented, “Just yesterday, I had been to a secondhand book store to get some specific texts (a job-related task) and as a joke bought a couple of old fiction books. Then there was a period of time when I was in my car waiting for my wife to finish a meeting and I thought I’d have a read. They weren’t great books so I expected to have a bit of a laugh at them. The written words on those old pages captured my mind in a way that was unexpected. My mind was soon lit up with imagery and I went into a deep state of contemplation of not only the story but the skill of the writer. I realized that there was nothing else to the book, it had its story and no more, so I was able to let go of the need for there to be more happening. Had the story been available online, firstly, I would not have chosen it above the proliferation of options and demands presented by the computer as vehicle for the internet. Secondly, had I started the story, my mind would not have wandered within the story but to the many other things the computer could have provided me at that moment. I would have engaged thinly with the story with the result that little trace of it would have remained in my neurology. The cute and clever choices of words made by the writer would have vanished by breakfast time. No enhancement of my mind would have occurred. It would have been a strangely empty task. But this morning I have the very unfamiliar desire to read fiction books.”

Laurie L. Putnam, an educator, librarian and communications consultant, wrote, “Anecdote #1 Digital technologies let us be more present in the lives of distant family and friends. My family is spread around the region, close enough to get together often, but far enough apart to make in-person visits an effort that requires significant travel time. Yet, despite the distance, I look after my elderly mother and keep in close touch with my 12-year-old nieces. Every day we depend on email, texting, document sharing and web-based medical systems. From 150 miles away I can order medications for my mother and communicate with her doctors online. I can help my nieces with their homework online, in real time, and we can share daily life in pictures, text, and video. Our days and lives would be very different without the internet. Anecdote #2 My shiny new washing machine blinked at me with a high-tech LED readout that offered more choices than ever for cleaning my clothes. Cool. But those lights went out a few years later, just after the warranty expired. A service technician diagnosed the death of the circuit board and ordered a replacement – cheaper than a new washer, he said. The new board arrived, but it didn’t work either, the fault of another faulty chip. ‘That happens. It’s not unusual,’ said the technician who next recommended discarding the entire 300-pound washing machine and buying a new one. The experience was frustrating, inconvenient and expensive. Did the digital washing machine clean my clothes better? Sometimes. I liked and used about 20% of the options. But overall I had been perfectly happy with my old analog washer. Was the digital washer more expensive? Yes. Did it break faster? Yes. Was it fixable when it broke? No. Recyclable? Unknown. Chips have relatively short life cycles, and if we don’t want our children to inherit landfills of disposable appliances, we need to design more reliable products that can be serviced and recycled. Did the digital machine raise my stress level? Yes. Overall, did the digital washer improve my well-being? No. And it wasn’t even connected to the Internet of Things, surreptitiously collecting data about my lost socks and water usage. Just because we can make everything digital doesn’t mean we should. There are cases where our well-being is better served by simpler, analog tools.”

Frank Odasz, president of Lone Eagle Consulting, commented, “I started online in 1983 with two big personal goals: 1) To learn how to live and work solo from anywhere. Now I am celebrating my 20th year as president of Lone Eagle Consulting, primarily creating and delivering unique online courses for citizens and educators, specializing in rural, remote and indigenous internet learning. I’ve done over a million miles, presenting prolifically. 2) To understand, truly, what’s the best that good people can learn to do for themselves and others online. Being online at 300 baud back in 1983 has now evolved to having 7 MB fixed wireless at a rural ranch house in Montana. I’ve been able to dramatically enhance my ability to absorb lots of information routinely and to synthesize my learnings in articles, live presentations and unique online courses. But, the shelf life of such knowledge keeps shortening due to our age of accelerating change. The sheer volume of what I’ve put online is testament to the power of online self-directed learning. But along the way I taught myself to avoid the time-wasting tactics of corporations. Believe it or not, my smartphone hardly ever rings, beeps or otherwise controls my peace of mind. The ideal rural lifestyle, Goal #1, has been something of an art to achieve and maintain. This morning, I’m about to write an article on the Code of the West, linking our moral code to [corporate entities’] snarky, persuasive algorithms and the 6,000-plus youth suicides annually, anxiety problems of 1 in 5 screen-agers and more ‘impacts’ that are just recently making the mainstream news. I’ve presented for APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] twice on indigenous broadband training best practices and the challenges of positive social engineering; designing for positive outcomes by a connected human family. We’re realizing that everyone has the choice for a global voice and impact. If the remaining 3 billion not online – mostly young, poor and eager to learn but without schools, teachers or online access – are suddenly given online access without moral guidance and meaningful short-term outcomes, then connectivity worldwide with be a lose-lose instead of a carefully orchestrated win-win. This is the understanding that I’ve worked to achieve since I came online in 1983 at 300 baud. Here I find myself, still solo, knowing one in five kids have been cyberbullied at the high school in Meridian, Idaho, my granddaughter will attend. Net neutrality and freedom of creativity and speech has been killed by tech giants; 47% of jobs will disappear by 2025 due to AI and robotics; and the tech giants are killing competition and startups instead of seeking the win-win of unleashing the latent creativity in everyone on the planet. The stupidity of actions by Not My President [Trump] are against common sense, the love of learning, fairness for all and American values. But, if too many rural folks are still fooled by Facebook news on their smartphones, then the worst is yet to come.”

A professor from North America wrote, “The internet is everything for me, my family and my students today. We would not and could not do without it. Period. It is amazing! However, its ever-present influence in the lives of the hyperconnected also seems to be quite overwhelming – it is causing stress and anxiety and somewhat lowering the learning performance in courses for most of my students. I have been teaching at a fairly exclusive private university for 20 years. These students have all of the privileges of the most-connected. Over the past decade the students have been progressively more resistant to reading and writing assignments that require any sort of deep critical thinking, and I have had to annually reduce the course expectations as they literally buckle under what they perceive to be undue ‘pressure’ from simply being asked to do reading and writing assignments that were absolutely no problem for students of the first decade of the 2000s and previous.”

A research scientist based in Europe commented, “I used to hate writing text messages and only used them in case the other person couldn’t pick up the phone and I needed to leave an important information. Instead I called people, whether it was for making an appointment, asking them how they are, etc. Shortly after I started to use WhatsApp however, I was dragged into the constant availability and spend so much time on writing things that could have been discussed more easily on the phone. Because I receive so many messages, I cannot have my phone on loud when my data is switched on, which also means I miss phone calls. The fact that less and less people even recognise when they are being called makes it even more difficult to switch back to calls instead of messages again.”

Stephanie Mallak Olson, director at the Iosco-Arenac District Library in Michigan, wrote, “I am sad that people who are not ‘connected’ to the digital world are often ignored or left out. If you are not on Facebook and your family only shares photos via Facebook you never see them. If you don’t own a computer to get bank statements online you are often charged a fee to get the statements in hard copy. If you are not on a device and everyone else around you is then how do you get to be a part of the conversation? While at conferences, I find it rude that people are doing other online work instead of giving their attention to a speaker. Many sources of information are now only available online and people must rely on others to find the answers. I recently heard a doctor say to a patient ‘you need to find someone to look it up for you online.’ People in that same office wouldn’t take the time to assist a person with their ‘patient portal’ access but instead gave them a Web address where they could take an online course. I happen to know the person does not have or know how to operate a computer. I use computers every day both for work and home. I do not text or even have my cheap cellphone close by as I want a limit on my time spent on a mobile device. I also support getting together with family without devices so we can talk.”

A technology consultant and expert on attention and workflow previously with a top-five tech company wrote, “It’s been liberating and enslaving. It takes effort to ignore. We have given it more power than we’ve given the best parts of our humanity.”

Anthony Rutkowski, internet pioneer and business leader, said, “Although it has clearly changed daily life, it is arguably not for the better.”

We have a running quote in our family that sums it up so well. ‘Do you remember when you used to have to wonder things?’Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing, a professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, said, “We have a running quote in our family that sums it up so well. ‘Do you remember when you used to have to wonder things?'”

A research scientist and internet pioneer commented, “In the small, digital technology has been a highly positive experience. I work from home part-time – a wonderful contribution to my well-being – and I keep in contact with friends too distant to see often. It is in the large – the societal – where I feel the negative aspects of the digital world have personal consequences for me, an impact on my well-being. The rise of hatred, the manipulation of politics and so on – these are not distant events with no personal impact.”

A professor wrote, “Now when I wake up in the morning I reach for my iPhone with trepidation to find out what outrage our so-called ‘president’ has perpetrated already. It’s horrible.”
A senior product strategy expert commented, “I ride bikes with an older friend in the mountains of bucolic Pennsylvania. The friend, who had not yet discovered Facebook, Instagram and texting, and I would go for a ride. I loved that I was disconnected for a few hours. The last time we rode he was getting alerts through a Garmin mounted on his handlebars (they were mostly from Facebook – people liking a photo, etc.). It interrupted both my experience of the bike ride and my connection to my friend.”

A professor based in Oceania wrote, “I grew up with pen and inkwells at school and a typewriter at work. Right from the very beginning it was too complicated and time-consuming for men to do this type of demeaning, boring work. Over time, typing pools disappeared, executive assistants appeared and even some brave men would actually type. Technology improved ‘women’s work’ but not their prestige or paycheck. My first experience with email occurred while working for large American actuarial firm. I could send work last thing during the day (in Australia) and first thing the next morning I had a reply. Wow! Now technology is being driven by business across all areas for money, money, money. Greed has taken over. Isolated pensioners and the poor across the world are being excluded from knowledge, personal growth and education, due to costs, the need for constant upgrading of hardware and software and the greed of the 1% through money manipulation, laundering and crooked tax loopholes. Technology keeps increasing inequality. The disadvantaged will never catch up.”

A data scientist based in Europe wrote, “A friend has recently begun trading bitcoin. The volatility of the ecosystem, the potential for massive gains and the stories of others benefiting incredibly from their investments led to near-obsessive behaviour. He would phase out of meetings, meals and social events to check the current bitcoin value – it became more important than anything else.”

An executive director of a Europe-based nonprofit wrote, “We don’t understand what we can trust anymore. Just this week, a member of the family wrote over iMessage to ask me to share a password over a ‘secure’ medium ‘like email’; and another asked for a more secure way to do banking than over Wi-Fi. I’m not mocking either; I’m pointing out that people I know who don’t necessarily get what I do for a living don’t quite understand what’s going on but have concerns that will lead to both withdrawal and poor decisions that will negatively affect them.”