NOTE: This article is a summary of a report I co-wrote with colleagues in 2011 during my work at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre. The report was published in Mieczakowski, A., Goldhaber, T. and Clarkson, J. (2011) ‘Culture, Communication and Change: Summary of an Investigation of the Use and Impact of Modern Media and Technology in Our Lives’, Public Report (Short), ISBN 978-0-9545243-6-4.
The world is changing, some say faster than ever, some say irreversibly, and all argue about whether the change is for the better or for the worse. What is driving this change is the immersion of our society into a new way of communicating. Where we once had to wait days, weeks, or months to talk to distant friends and family, we now view a delay of a few seconds as an inconvenience. We can take our letter-writing devices, phones, photos, and music, among other things, with us wherever we go, and our modern lives revolve around this ability. There is no doubt that this ubiquity of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has changed the ways individuals, groups, and societies think, feel, behave, and interact, but the extent and value of the change is largely unknown. The research presented in this article was designed to provide a picture of how modern communications technology is being used by individuals and families and the subsequent effects. The research was conducted in the populations of four countries: the UK (1269 respondents), the US (1020 respondents), Australia (1132 respondents), and China (1178 respondents).
Well-being and ICT
Even across many schools of thought, there is agreement that there is a clear change in society as the result of ICT. New skills have been created and old skills have become almost obsolete. Ways of communication with others have changed. Accessibility to knowledge has increased, but inundation with too much information has potentially threatened the ability to process that information and acquire new knowledge. There are clear positive and negative consequences to the pervasiveness of modern ICT, but with so much extreme fear and optimism surrounding the changes being experienced in the modern world, how is it possible to know which changes are ultimately good? This is where the concept of well-being is critical. Well-being is essentially defined as a state of positive functioning. It is more than just personal happiness, also taking into account such factors as sense of purpose and direction . As put by Huppert, well-being is “the combination of feeling good and functioning effectively” . While societal changes as a result of ICT will always be evaluated by older generations by comparisons to the societal norms with which they grew up, the only truly objective and useful way of evaluating ICT-induced change is by evaluating positive or negative changes in the well-being of individuals, families, and communities .
The actual level of use of technology varies greatly across the population, but only a minority of people are heavy users, with the majority of people using communications technology for less than six hours a day on average. The preferences of the population were also highly variable, but face-to-face contact was still the strongest communications preference in all four countries studied. In addition, most people were aware that different kinds of ICT were best for different purposes and tried to modify their communications use accordingly. The impacts of communications technology on individuals and families were both positive and negative in nature. While the raw amount of use did not appear to affect well-being in most cases, families did report that work communications sometimes interfered with family time and that children sometimes appeared to want to engage with technology more than with the family. Some people also reported feeling overwhelmed or out of control, which did appear to detract from overall well-being, even when those individuals tried to moderate their use. Furthermore, the frequent technology related distractions often mentioned by families also appeared to influence well-being in some circumstances. Conversely, feeling in control was associated with increased well-being. Steps taken by families towards feeling in control often involved increasing awareness of use and consciously moderating activity. This allowed families to reap some of the benefits of using technology, for example by talking to distant family members or using gaming interfaces together. Many individuals also expressed that communications technology gave them an increased feeling of connectedness with friends and relatives, particularly those living farther away. Ultimately, finding an ideal location for technology, formulating rules, creating awareness, educating both parents and children about responsible use, and finding balance are key components in being able to harness the positives of technology while avoiding many of the negatives. It is important to keep in mind that technological change is inevitable, so finding an optimal relationship and use pattern is a continual process. Societal advancement depends on technology, but that technology can also have unanticipated side-effects that must be mitigated. Having an understanding of what a satisfying relationship with ICT looks and feels like is helpful guidance for future changes. Ultimately, with the correct balance, the use of communications technology will enable individuals and families to achieve things never dreamt of in the past while maintaining a sense of humanity and well-being.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989) “Happiness Is Everything, or Is It – Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), p. 1069-1081.
- Huppert, F. A. (2009) “Psychological Well-being: Evidence Regarding its Causes and Consequences”. Applied Psychology, 1(2), p. 137-164.
- Huppert, F. A. (2009) “A New Approach to Reducing Disorder and Improving Well-Being”. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(1), p. 108-111.