Should we make email, iPhones, laptops and tablets our servants and not our masters?

Woman using her mobile phone, front of a storefront gift

Woman using her mobile phone, front of a storefront gift - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Wake up. Check work email. Reply to angry boss. Check Facebook. Like kitten video. Relax? Haven’t got time; must update Instagram. Richard Porritt explores the modern phenomenon swamping our lives: data overload. Is it bad? What can we do?

Imagine a life where Google, Twitter and the ability to actually call someone are not at our fingertips. In fact, try to imagine life without the internet. It wasn’t that long ago and yet now it feels almost prehistoric.

Soon everything will be connected to the world wide web – your television, your watch, even your fridge.

But with this brave, exciting new age comes an inevitable downside. Data overload is being cited more and more in depression and anxiety cases. If we are always connected, how can we ever switch off?

Information analysts Esri UK have released a report which suggests that more than a third of us are left feeling stressed by the ever-increasing amount of information we face. The study claims that Britons are struggling to stay on top of numerous email accounts, social media and the latest apps, yet fear switching off because they do not want to miss anything.

About 70% of those who took part in the survey admitted data overload was becoming a major issue in their lives. And 14% said they had gone as far as to remove devices from close proximity, to stop them checking and updating constantly, though some experts believe this approach can also spike stress levels. It is not just adults that are subjected to media in its varied forms. Increasing numbers of children have access to the web. Research from the University of Boston revealed worrying findings about children whose parents use technology to calm tantrums. The study found that if children were regularly handed phones and tablets to stop them crying, they struggled to regulate their emotions and found it harder to find their own resolutions to tricky situations.

Does data overload also threaten how the traditional family interacts? For decades the television was the dominating force in most households. Now it seems even the collective experience of watching EastEnders or the big match is being eroded. University of East Anglia PhD student Ksenia Frolova is putting the final touches to a lengthy study investigating the impact media and technology is having on family life.

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A large part of this study has been looking at multi-tasking, and different approaches to how much access to technology children are allowed. She said: “I have studied many families to find out how media is consumed today within households and the impact on inter-personal relationships.

“What I discovered was that because there are no common rules about usage, families have very different approaches. Some allow children to use media and technology – iPads, televisions, computers – a lot, whereas others either ban them completely or strictly regulate how long and when they are used. Interestingly, these different approaches appear to very much mirror the way parents were brought up. Most people are copying their own parents with regards to this aspect, just like they might do with others. For those who do allow technology, it is often because they want their children to be prepared for the future. They feel they will have to understand and be savvy about technology when they are older.

“Multi-tasking with different media has had a slightly different impact, though. Some people reported that whereas before the family watching TV together would be viewed as ‘family time’, now if some members are also using phones, for example, this is no longer the case.

“It is very common. The latest figures suggest 99% of the adult population do media-multi-task. We are often expected to do it at work and this is now a norm at home as well.” So, should we ban children from using tablets and phones until they leave for university, in a bid to banish data overload?

If only it were that simple.

In an almost completely contradictory report from the University of London, professors claim children who are handed tablets from birth develop quicker.

Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who led the research, said: “They learn so fast on tablets. It is shocking how fast they learn – even faster than adults – to do things like scroll up and down text.”

It seems the scientists can’t agree. But restraint – for your own personal sanity and for the sake of a quality family life – might be the way forward. As the old saying goes, “everything in moderation”.

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