TechTalks: Why we should introduce speed bumps in our use of technology

11 Oct 2022

Straits Times, 11 Oct 2022, Why we should introduce speed bumps in our use of technology
At a recent technology conference I attended, an expert lamented in his speech that the topic of cyber security is "boring but important".

Indeed, there seems to be a relentless push in the technology sector for everything to be engaging, engrossing and entertaining, when the grim reality is that in life, not all things can be fun.

Managing one's screen time is a classic example.

Our biological clocks follow a 24-hour cycle where our bodies release the melatonin hormone in the evenings to induce feelings of fatigue and sleepiness. Research shows that electronic back-lit devices like our smartphones, laptops, tablets and readers emit blue light that suppresses melatonin production. If we continue to use our devices well into the night, we stimulate our alertness, are less ready for bed and will also sleep more poorly.

Concurrently, the Covid-19 pandemic saw the intensification of the "doomscrolling" trend, where people spend copious amounts of time reading negative news, with adverse implications for their mental well-being.

The emergence of the phenomenon of "revenge bedtime procrastination" has also contributed to excessive screen time. This refers to the reluctance to turn in after a hard day's work where one feels deprived of leisure time. Instead of answering the body's need for rest, people stay up longer and later to surf the net or binge on videos to reclaim a sense of personal liberty.

With electronic devices becoming a mainstay of work and leisure, the discipline to manage one's screen time is a boring but important endeavour.

Most devices today offer screen time management tools, including weekly screen time statistics reports, the ability to set daily limits on the use of specific apps, or to reduce screen brightness in the evenings such as Apple's Night Shift. Many third party apps are also available to help one take control of screen time habits.

Besides device-related measures, one could also experiment with pre-bedtime routines that do not involve devices. But doing the hard work of introducing such measures is by no means fun.

Financial prudence is yet another boring but important undertaking.

With the digitalisation of banking, payments, investing and shopping, our smartphones are pinging constantly with financial transactions. A bewildering proliferation of apps and social media accounts help us save money, secure savvy deals and enjoy attractive discounts. Many of these buy-now-pay-later or cashback offers vie for our attention with thrilling alerts, shiny stickers, and titillating coupons, luring us to part with our money. We need to take a pause to consider how each transaction factors into our overall financial planning.

But the online environment is allergic to speed bumps. The more seamless the online experience, the longer you will spend on it, the more content you will consume and the more you will buy. Between the cookies tracking your interests to suggest relevant advertisements and credit card autofills to speed up payment, our instincts for financial prudence are truly tested online.

Interestingly, banks have caught on to the allure of the online world to introduce banking apps that make financial planning more fun for younger consumers. UOB's TMRW mobile banking app inculcates financial management through gamification. To build their virtual city within the app, customers must save more in order to unlock rewards and level up within the game.

The long-term efficacy of such gamification for nurturing sound financial management remains to be seen but previous research suggests downsides such as demotivation when one does not advance in the game. An overemphasis on the extrinsic rewards of the game could also detract from imbuing in consumers the intrinsic drive for financial prudence. After all, there is a limit to how much fun we can introduce to financial planning.

With the buzz building around the metaverse and its promise of breathtaking applications, the online world is set to become even more enthralling.

Much more needs to be done to introduce the much-needed speed bumps and reality checks in our online experiences to preserve a sense of our priorities.

For one, social media platforms could alert us to being online for too long. Devices should remind us to go to bed. Banking apps should chide us for saving too little. Shopping platforms should caution us against buying more than we need.

Aspects of life that are boring but important are exactly that and digital interfaces need to signpost them accordingly. Only then will we remember that technology use is not an endless joyride.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also a member of the Media Literacy Council.