COVID-19 tech consumption: helpful or harmful?

October 9, 2020
Various digital devices on a desk

From virtual ways of working, to shopping online, to staying connected with family and friends, our use of technology appeared to be the one thing COVID-19 didn’t put a stop to. Adoption in Australia spread faster during the height of the pandemic than the virus itself. Perceived barriers disappeared overnight as we were forced into lockdown to work, play, shop and entertain from home.

While brands were busy trying to meet the exponential growth in consumer demand, I took a step back to think about the long-term implications. Is our level of consumption healthy, and who’s responsible for managing our use?

A happy chance for technology

From Zoom-ing colleagues, to FaceTiming friends, to happily handing over personal data just to enjoy a meal out, technology enabled us to more confidently navigate the changes triggered by COVID-19. Even the technologically-challenged or reluctant had to change their ways out of sheer necessity.

Because technology was – for a period – the only viable alternative to person-to-person interaction, you would expect most people weren’t feeling too concerned about their new-found dependence. We used Course Corrector – our own research initiative which aggregates first-party survey, search and social sentiment data – to test the theory.

When we asked people about their experience using digital communication technologies during COVID-19, the majority of Aussies (76%) had positive things to say. Most agreed it had a positive impact on their mental health (74%), their relationships (65%) and how they spend their free time (73%), and made them more motivated in their career or studies (66%).

Feelings used to describe use of technology during COVID-19

Chart: Feelings used to describe use of technology during COVID-19

Astonishingly, nearly 90% agreed technology is essential to solving the world’s problems and, overall, it does more good than harm (71%).

Technology is essential to solving the world’s problems

Chart: Technology is essential to solving the world’s problems
A venue Check-In sign with QR Code.

New habits that stick

Technology manufacturers and sellers must have been giddy over recent reports about our use of tech during COVID-19. Most declared the virus as the unforeseen catalyst to our speedy uptake of new tools and technologies, but affirmed it would result in broader, longer-term adoption of technology platforms and solutions. And I don’t disagree.

From Course Corrector, I know that nearly three in four Aussies (72%) believe technology will be more instrumental in their lives post-pandemic. For example, they believe it will have a more prominent role in how they socialise with friends (73%) and family (72%), how they shop for things (77%) and stay entertained (81%). Perhaps more interesting was the anticipation for tech to play a bigger part in activities where it wouldn’t normally. Things like fitness, health and wellbeing (51%), mental health (54%), nutrition (43%), education (70%), events we attend (57%) and how we spend our free time (72%). Even more interesting than that has been watching the steady increase of these figures between the start of the pandemic and today.

Will technology play a more prominent role in your life post-COVID?

Chart: Will technology play a more prominent role in your life post-COVIID?

The good with the bad

While I wouldn’t argue the value of technology during COVID-19, I question what our new consumption – and eventual habits – will mean in a post-pandemic world.

Distraction seems inevitable. 58% of Aussies said they find it harder to concentrate as a result of being so connected to technology. To help them stay focused, 79% said creating boundaries is important. But is it possible?

It’s important to create boundaries between ourselves and technology

Chart: It’s important to create boundaries between ourselves and technology
While time away from technology is certainly desired – 76% agreed they feel a need to disconnect and switch off
– it’s not easy given our increasing reliance.
Digital Detoxing; Two people sitting in a hammock in the wilderness
A digital detox, where we disconnect from technology for a period, is one way to find balance, but planning a detox is one thing and taking it is another.

For example, when we asked who was planning a digital detox soon, 41% agreed, while 45% said they want to, but don’t feel it’s possible.

I feel a need to disconnect and switch off from technology

Chart: I feel a need to disconnect and switch off from technology

The tech dilemma

With consumption on the rise, and our need for balance teetering on the edge, it begs a very important question: who is responsible for managing how much and how often we use technology? Are we responsible, or do governments, manufacturers and sellers have a moral duty to facilitate our disconnection?

The trending Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, raises concerns about our ability to control our own use of technologies like social media. In the film, Aza Raskin, former employee of Firefox and Mozilla Labs and current Co-Founder of the Center for Humane Technology, explains his own struggles to refrain from using social platforms like Twitter and Reddit. “I actually had to write myself software to break my addiction to reading Reddit,” he says.

From Course Corrector, we can see a similar appeal from users. When rating inclusions for their home internet and mobile phone plans, 71% marked free subscriptions to apps that manage usage and screen time important for their home internet plan, and 59% wanted the same for their mobile phone plan. Most of these available services, like Family Zone and The Mobile Zone app – are designed for children, however, except for a few buried self-imposed limits on Apple and Google devices.

A girl using her smart phone

Managing the off-switch

When it comes to government regulation, the technology is developing faster than most new regulation can be written. What legislation does pass is often to restrict harmful online content and cyberbullying, and maintain cyber security and competitive advantage among tech companies.

The Australian eSafety Commissioner, originally established to promote children’s safety online, was soon given power under the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 to promote online safety for all Australians. Still, in a report released in September, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman said: “If the tech giants are building the digital roads, they also need to install the digital guard rails and virtual seat belts to keep their users safe.”

So, according to the government body set up to help regulate our safety, it’s the responsibility of the tech companies to keep us safe. Which leaves us circling back to whether the self-imposed limits available are enough to help us manage our own bad habits.

Companies that start developing services and solutions now – perhaps with reward for our own good behaviour – to help us create safer habits will be better prepared to meet our growing expectations as technology tightens its grip on everyday behaviour. Partnering with government agencies to promote responsible use is also likely to put them in good stead for regulation that is bound to catch up.

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