Joyce Fegan: How significant are dead-eyed scrolls going to be?

Screen time makes us more digitally connected but less so with our environment and community and affects levels of empathy
Joyce Fegan: How significant are dead-eyed scrolls going to be?

We've all been doing a lot more scrolling, tapping and mindless involuntary consuming of information - stuff we never sought out in the first place during the Covid era.

The green light had yet to come on outside Lidl.

The orderly-formed queue of adults, all masked and socially distant, stood with their heads bowed, faces buried into their phones. 

Their feet were on the tarmacadam-ed ground of a car park in Co Wicklow, but as for the location of their heads — that was anyone's guess.

Maybe some were lost in another pointless, but heated comments section, under some inane Facebook post. 

Perhaps others were off in Tallaght District Court, being judge and jury of the so-called Dubai two. Maybe some were poolside with Khloe Kardashian, also playing the role of judge and jury when it comes to photoshopping and filters.

We have always talked a lot about children's screen time, the time they spend on phones or in front of iPads, the effect that it has on their developing minds and levels of empathy. 

And that conversation has been ever-present these last 12 months as parents stepped into the role of teacher and online lessons became the compulsory alternative to real-life learning.

But what about adults? And what impact is incessant screen time and scrolling having on our levels of empathy and relationship with reality?

This week, a somewhat known Irish adult took to their social media to express their "opinion" about masks and vaccines. 

The information they hastily disseminated to their thousands of followers was wholly inaccurate, and of course, went totally unverified. But it still got out there, it still had reach, the only problem being it wasn't held to account.

But that's the difference between citizens pressing publish on their smartphones, and held-to-account publishers. 

The media must cross-check and verify, have every story pass through a chain of eyes, be accountable to the law of the land and codes of practice, all while giving information away for free while also paying staff.

Citizens on the other hand, and those with thousands of followers, just press share. End of story. End of responsibility.

This person's sharing probably fell into the misinformation category of fake news. First Draft News breaks fake news down into three categories. 

Misinformation is false, but not deliberately created to cause harm. Disinformation is also false, but the spreader knowingly intends harm. 

Then there is malinformation - information, such as hate speech, shared to cause harm.

The bad information is now out there and we are all at home, on our phones, our queuing in Lidl, reading, listening or viewing this content.

Were you in the workplace, in class, at your local sports club or bridge group, you either wouldn't be on your phone as you'd be engaging with humans IRL, that's what we now say for "in real life", or else you could have a discussion about the dodgy information you consumed and maybe a doctor in the group might speak up with some facts.

Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, found that mobile phone use has surged in lockdown. 

Of all the people they surveyed, 22% of users had been using their phone, but hadn't placed or received a single call. About 65% of the time people were using their phones, they were connected to Wi-Fi, not a cellular network.

We've all been doing a lot of scrolling, tapping, and mindless involuntary consuming of information - stuff we never sought out in the first place.

We've been screen grabbing messages and comment threads and sending them on to people in WhatsApp groups. 

We've been sending on memes that no one replies to, that's how bad our communication as human beings has gotten — we don't even bother responding now. 

Then there's that new thing on WhatsApp when you get a forwarded message, usually a joke, and it says at the top "forwarded many times". People tend not to reply to them either.

Black Mirror

A Deloitte study of digital trends in 2020 found that 94% of us now have access to a smart device and some of us are checking our phones every 7.2 minutes - that's across a 24-hour time frame, so it's probably more than every 7.2 minutes if you account for sleep.

And a third of respondents looked at their phone more than 50 times a day.

What impact is all of this having on us? 

Are we more insular, more digitally connected but less connected with our environment and community than ever before? 

Does it make us more judgmental and bitter, where we are in a constant position of viewership of someone else's life?

New research from the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University looked at children's, not adults', screen time during the pandemic.

The results weren't comforting.

The study showed that children used smartphones 71% more than usual and social media 72% during the lockdown months.

Under a third of the more than 500 children surveyed reported having been the subject of cyberbullying during the lockdown, but 50% said they had been witness to someone else receiving such abuse online. Would you see such a high prevalence of bullying out and about in real life?

Bullying was also found to be more prevalent among younger children and between males, not females. For teenagers aged between 14 and 16, the bullying tended to occur on private messaging services like WhatsApp.

And the majority of those surveyed, who acknowledged having been cyberbullied (39%), said that it had happened more frequently during lockdown than before.

We have this data for our children, but what about for adults?

How has all the extra screen time, social media and scrolling affected us and when restrictions are eased will we just step away from our devices?

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