The advent of social media presented a revelation to me, as an avid media consumer with varied interests, social media offered an opportunity to glean micro news updates on all of my interests at once. To be able to horizon scan in an instant to see what is happening in multiple, and often complex worlds, offered a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to fend off the fomo and pick all of the teams at once. Previously careful choices had to be made about where I was willing to expend my energy. Social media has allowed me to ‘be’ in multiple places at once from the comfort of my fireside armchair. However, just recently, for all of the convenience and extended play that my engagement with social media has offered me, I have found myself caught in a conundrum, exposed to the demands of being in two (or even three!) places at once, it is a challenge that I have, as yet, to find the answer for.
So what triggered this culture shock? Recently our daughter got her first mobile phone, and I was struck by the all-consuming power that modern technology has over our lives. Hyper-reactive to every beckon, as a new initiate to the insta-connected world, I liken the constant call of a new mobile phone to the care and attention required of the Tamagotchi (remember those?), needy little plastic time-suckers that they were. Too loud ring-tones, ringing too often in the endless chitter-chatter-just-because-nonsense of the teenage hive mind. It’s positively exhausting to watch, but simultaneously alarming to see just how completely, and in a seemingly overnight-instant, modern technology has taken over my daughter’s life (and mine in the constant calls for refrain!). Not so long ago, I contributed to an edited collection, An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network however, I am beginning to think that there is a need for an initiation into the world of mobile phone ownership and self-care.
As I watch my daughter, I wonder whether it is an exaggerated reflection of myself that worries me more? Through the opportunities that mobile phone technology offers, we can be in more places than one – physically ‘present’ in one location, whilst really present in another conversation on the other side of the world, as we actively choose the better offer of the more interesting conversation. There, but not really there. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the extended networks that social media has made possible for me, and I would be a weaker academic and friend without them, but I find myself asking at what cost? Coming from a different perspective, would I give up my own social media engagement? Absolutely not. Will I be careful in the choices that I make around when I engage and what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing at the time? I will try!!
In fact, you don’t have to try hard to notice the difference in communication across the last decade. With our students now planning every aspect of their lives on their phones, including accessing learning resources and making lecture notes in some instances. People are connected by technology in ways that had seemed improbable (I worked at Sony Ericcson in the days when mobile technology was being developed – mobile phones were huge!! My boss at the time commented, “It’ll never take off, I can’t fit it in my handbag!” I have a network of colleagues across the globe that I regularly test ideas with, conversations that stretch my thinking in ways that would never have occurred to me, and I have learnt how to do things that I would never have tried were it not for You Tube (I refer to a recent conversation with a colleague about self-teaching intarsia knitting). Personally, I am struck by the power of social media as a strategic enabler and a social leveller, giving access to knowledge and networks that would have been previously inaccessible.
Recently I have been asked to lead the Digital Wellbeing workstream for Nottingham Trent University’s #NTU2025 Strategic Plan, and in the interests of balance, I have found myself considering not only the opportunities offered up by an engagement in digital technologies, but also of the impact that this has upon our everyday working practice. Hence my recent hyper-critical eye. In Too Fast To Think: How to Reclaim Your Creativity in a Hyper-Connected World, Chris Lewis (2016) warns of the constant interruptions of technology and cautions how this ‘contributes to feelings of stress. It can make us feel like everything is slightly out of control.’ This is a comment that I have heard with more regularity across the corridors in the last few years, where colleagues, at times, feel genuinely overwhelmed by the volume of electronic communication that our digital technologies have afforded us. I get up to 200 emails a day (I know there are others who receive more than me!), and I am still struggling to find a way to manage that volume without missing the important stuff along the way (see an earlier post here). By way of reassurance to myself though, no-one has died as a result of me missing an email. This, however, is in marked contrast to the reaction of my daughter – the new initiate – who reacts as though the world might end if she doesn’t get to her phone within 20 seconds of it going off.
Not only do we have a responsibility to manage our own use of digital technology, but we also have to commit ourselves to managing the expectations of those around us about our engagement with those technologies. I am fortunate to be working at an institution that cares about the Digital Wellbeing of its employees and is actively taking strategic measures to manage and support staff engagement with digital technologies. However, managing my own daughter’s navigation of the perils of a hyper-connected world is one that we will journey together. There are so many personal extensions to life experience available through the social network and I will continue to encourage those with relish. The tricky bit is how to manage them without feeling that you need more life to be able to do so!
Keep up with the developments of the Nottingham Trent University’s Strategic Plan developments at #NTU2025