Are we experiencing "DIGITAL ADDICTION" at work

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 7 February 2018

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This week, I read an article on brandchannel called “Tech Insiders Warn About Cost of Kids’ Digital Addiction”. The piece outlines the complexities associated with the digital age and teen technology consumption. The article cites these statistics; teens use an average of 9 hours of media per day; tweens an average of 6 hours.

Are adults in the workforce any different?

Because of these statistics, two industry groups, Common Sense, the independent non-profit advocacy organization for kids in the digital age, and the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of tech insiders committed to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests, announced a new campaign to protect young minds from the potential of digital manipulation and addiction. The campaign is modeled on successful youth anti-smoking drives, and focuses on kids due to their vulnerability.

Brandchannel continues and quotes from a press release, “The campaign, called Truth About Tech, will put pressure on the tech industry to make its products less intrusive and less addictive. The effort will educate and inform the more than 80 million consumers who regularly turn to Common Sense for trustworthy, objective information to help make smart media choices for their families. What’s more, it will enlist designers and technologists from across Silicon Valley and the tech industry to recognize their moral responsibility to use technology for the greater good, as opposed to potentially harming kids.”

The notion of a “technology addiction” inspired me to wonder if there was an equal problem in the workplace among adults as well. Are employees truly engaged in their work while being distarcted on their smart phones by texts and requests to play games? Can productive conversations in meetings take place when every participant is constantly checking their smart phones for tweets or texts and email? It reminds me of the old trick of reading a comic behind a book. But now it’s a smartphone.

Once, several years ago at Inward, I asked our staff members to leave their smartphones at their desks during an all hands meeting; a revolt almost occurred. We got into an interesting discussion that a smartphone at your side was more than just a right, it was a necessity. A tool that made them more productive; provided answers to questions on the spot and more useful to the company because of the immediate access to the internet and google. Another person said that it had replaced the pen and notepad, it was like the new digital water cooler where people used to gather around to socialize; now they socialize through social media, Facebook and Instagram. They reminded me that during a brainstorm session recently, they could find ideas that contributed to fresh insights. I challenged the team to use their own creativity and brain prowess and talents, rather than rely on existing/documented thoughts and ideas. It was an interesting exchange, indeed, that opened my eyes.

After visiting the Comment Sense website, I learned more about the problem and how technology companies were designing addictive techniques and applications. They believe the technology development system is vulnerable to manipulation and addictive habits.

Common Sense’s  website says, “Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision”

“Technology platforms make it easier than ever for bad actors to cause havoc:”

  • Pushing lies directly to specific zip codes, races, or religions.
  • Finding people who are already prone to conspiracies or racism, and automatically reaching similar users with “Lookalike” targeting.
  • Delivering messages timed to prey on us when we are most emotionally vulnerable (e.g., Facebook found depressed teens buy more makeup).
  • Creating millions of fake accounts and bots impersonating real people with real-sounding names and photos, fooling millions with the false impression of consensus.
  • If this is true why not just take remedies and adapt our habits at home and in the office to deal with predator, habit-forming, addictive technology?

Comment Sense suggests, this technology is more complex to battle and the situation is different for these for reasons.

  • Artificially Intelligent - No other media drew on massive supercomputers to predict what it could show to perfectly keep you scrolling, swiping or sharing.
  • 24/7 Influence - No other media steered two billion people’s thoughts 24/7 – checking 150 times per day – from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep.
  • Social Control - No other media redefined the terms of our social lives: self-esteem, when we believe we are missing out, and the perception that others agree with us.
  • Personalized - No other media used a precise, personalized profile of everything we've said, shared, clicked, and watched to influence our behavior at this scale.

Digital addiction is also a major problem that is affecting employee engagement and productivity at work.

Many of us get completely frantic if we misplace our phones for half an hour, or heaven forbid, forget them at home. According to the New York Times, 84% of people can’t go a single day without their mobile device. Many of us check our work email and social media last thing before we sleep at night and first thing in the morning when we wake up and it’s making us frustrated and anxious.

We’re addicted to our technology.

So what can a company do to prevent technology addiction in the workplace and in the process improve productivity and employee engagement? It isn’t just about our family and teens. Here are my suggestions on what companies can do about it:

  • Create cultural awareness of the problem - share thoughts and ideas about how smart phones reduce productivity and reduction of efficiency and effectiveness. Share relevant stories and examples and make it personal. If possible, site what one hour of unproductive time costs the company in terms of profit/revenue.
  • Engage your employees to focus on their tasks - Peer pressure to do the right thing - no one would encourage someone to drink or drug on the job or be reckless, why should this be different?
  • Establish technology addiction support groups - take a page from Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous. Maybe company should adopt a step program to help employees overcome their addiction. Give them the opportunity to learn whether they are tech addicts by taking a self-evaluation test at
  • Establish a Social anti-addiction user advocacy group - regular meetings to address problems at work with technology addiction - Organizations such as Internet & Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA) and On-Line Gamers Anonymous offer online support and some face-to-face meetings to curb excessive technology use, as well as tips on starting your own chapter. While you need real-life people to benefit fully from any addiction support group, it’s especially important for smartphone or Internet addiction.
  • Report abuses and provide feedback and annual appraisals providing guidelines. - Consider adding evaluation of performance measures to smartphone usage and accountability goals to formal employee feedback sessions to avoid abuse use at work.
  • Schedule time “on and off” your smartphone - Many experts advise unplugging for a significant portion of the work day as a means of increasing productivity.  If you’re constantly distracted by checking email, returning tweets and answering social media communications, it’s hard to focus on the task at hand.

Consider starting slow. Conduct a trial exercise where company employees refrain from having their smartphone at their fingertips or access for a week. Monitor performance and work habits to see if they are more productive, more engaged and less distracted. After the week trial, have group discussions to determine if refraining from using smartphones during the work day is a good idea or not.

I’m curious to hear stories from your organizations. Is smartphone addiction a problem at your company? Is it causing conflict between baby boomers and millennial’s? Do your employees distinguish personal time on their phones and work times differently? Does technology at work cause stress at the office and at home?

I’m especially interested in learning what your companies and organizations are doing to deal with obsessive or addictive technology or smartphone problems at work.

Allan Steinmetz CEO - Inward Strategic Consulting 617-558-9770