Technology and the future of self: stress, loneliness, and digital obesity?


Is technology making us lonely, stressed out, insecure, and narcissistic? Increasing our digital obesity?

In this episode of the TechFirst video podcast, I had the privilege of interview Nik Badminton — yes, the futurist who I’ve talked to before — and Nick Black, the managing part of Intensions. Our focus: the study of over 2,000 people they did on the impact of technology on our sense of self, and on the future of our society.

We talk about stress, insecurity, narcissism, and, of course, digital obesity.

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Full transcript: technology and the future of self

John Koetsier: Is technology making us lonely, stressed out, insecure, narcissistic? Increasing our digital obesity? Maybe coronavirus is doing that.

Welcome to TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier.

Today we’re chatting with futurist Nik Badminton and researcher Nick Black. Nik and Nick. They’ve recently compiled a major study, surveyed more than 2000 people, and they focused on the technology that we use, the impacts it has on us, and how we see the future.

So this is TechFirst with John Koetsier. Let’s dive right in. Hello, Nik. Hello, Nick. I think this is the first time I’ve ever interviewed two Nicks and possibly the first time I’ve ever interviewed two people with the same name, so welcome!

Nikolas Badminton: It’s good to be here John.

Nick Black: Thanks for having us. Also two Nicks with accents.

John Koetsier: I know. One is English, what is the other one?

Nick Black: Australian.

John Koetsier:  Australian! Okay. I kind of suck at knowing which is which. So apologies for that. I want to start off with Mr. Black.

Talk to me a little bit about the genesis of the study. What were you trying to do? Why’d you kick it off and what were you studying?

Nick Black: Yeah, so Nik and I got together towards the end of 2019 and were looking at 2020, and we were really interested in exploring what was going on in society across the States, across America, and also for individuals what was going on with self. So the generation of the study was really looking at those two components, self and society, things like mental health, things like senses of loneliness, identity … as well as check usage and how these sort of things were intersecting across Americans in general.

John Koetsier: Cool. And so you run an agency, research agency, right? Were you in this for a client? Is it just for your own interest or what’s going on there?

Nick Black: This is self-funded with myself and Nik. We both funded the study together. We do a lot of research in things like health and technology, they’re clients that we work with regularly. But this one was something we wanted to do for ourselves to really explore this sort of as a pet project.

John Koetsier: Awesome. And Nik, Badminton in this case, you obviously are super interested in where people are and where they’re going. What was your interest in this study?

Nikolas Badminton: Yeah, for me, I was sort of really wondering, you know, we’re sort of a couple of decades into this internet age and this new promise of connection in the new world. And really where we were going to end up in terms of are we better? Are we worse? What’s our trajectory towards the future? How are things changing?

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting. Well, thanks so much for starting that off, kicking us off there. Let’s dive into what you found.

You learned something about technology and stress, and I kind of cracked a bit of a joke off the top, I mean if we’re not stressed enough right now with coronavirus and all the closures and everything that’s going on right there, technology itself has been sort of causing some of that as well as, of course digital obesity.

What did you learn there?

Nick Black: Yeah, so from a data perspective, we were looking at different age groups. In particular, 16 to 29 year old Americans were reporting really significantly higher levels of stress in a lot of realms of their life, particularly work and money. I mean if you’re looking at money and finances, almost 50% of those younger Americans, 16 to 29 year olds, were reporting stress on every day or most days kind of basis. Similarly with work, that was also getting up quite high there at about 43%. And then also, interestingly, another realm of stress which was emerging for these younger Americans in particular, were online interactions, with almost a third saying they were stressed by these interactions on a daily basis, which is quite high as well.

John Koetsier: So what’s the impact of our devices on this? Is it changing because of how we’re using our smartphones?

Nick Black: Nik?

John Koetsier:  Nik, you’re talking and your mouth is moving, but no words are coming out.

Nikolas Badminton: Sorry about that, yeah, sorry I just lost my headphones there. So if you could just repeat that John.

John Koetsier: It’s all good. Did you hear Nick Black’s question, or his referral of the question to you? I was asking what’s the impact of smartphones on that sense of stress that Nick was talking about?

Nikolas Badminton: Yeah. You know, it’s that constant reminder that there’s something in our pocket. Back in the day you used to have Blackberry with the little flashing light on top that would always remind us that it was there, right? And now it’s a constant buzzing, the alertedness that we have to have. You know, notifications are probably one of the biggest melee of the modern society. Everyone needs to know what you are up to, where you are, who you’re with, and really what your status is, and you feel compelled to be dragged into this algorithm that’s really drawing you into this attention economy. So the smart phone is that sort of portal into this world of stress, of isolation, and really it’s exacerbating that feeling of needing to present ourselves in a way that is perfect and ideal. And that’s what I think is leading us into this narcissistic world.

John Koetsier: Well, it’s super interesting because you know we’ve never had more technology. We’ve never been more connected with people. But you found high levels of loneliness and stress, sorry, loneliness and isolation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Nick Black: Yeah, so we were using two validated academic scales there looking at reports on a sense of loneliness within the population, as well as sort of insecurity and whether or not you feel insecure or not. And so with the loneliness in particular, yeah, again if we’re looking at that generational divide, 16 to 29 versus almost a 60+. At the 60+ level they’re just not feeling as lonely, as isolated from other people.

They do have this sense of connection that they’re reporting there, but then when you’re looking at the 16 to 29 year olds in particular, you’re talking 44% to 50% of them reporting senses of isolation, loneliness. It’s really sort of almost an epidemic level there of loneliness that we’re seeing with younger people.

Nikolas Badminton: Just to add to that as well, it almost seems like the older generation came from human communities, whereas the younger generation were born into the internet age and online communities, right? And that clear difference in definition that’s basically added to the situation.

Nick Black: The other interesting thing as well there is that you know it’s not just youth, 16 to 29. We move into the next age band 30 to 44, which is middle-aged by a lot of measures, those people are reporting almost the same levels of loneliness as the 16 to 29 year olds. So it’s almost anyone who has a greater degree of reliance on technology at that sort of 45 and under, which is showing these much higher spikes in loneliness.

John Koetsier:  One of the other things that you saw was that young people report much higher levels of social insecurity. I guess that’s related as well.

Nick Black: It’s possibly related. Yeah, I mean if we’re looking at insecurity here, we used a scale that is based on attachment, the idea of insecure attachment. So it’s a sense of insecurity in the way you relate to the people around you, your close kind of human connections.

And we’re seeing here, our sense is that almost 50% of 16 to 29 year olds saying that they worry that people will judge them, also worrying that people don’t care about them. And then also on the more extreme end of the spectrum, 40% saying they worry that other people will hurt them, whether that’s physically or emotionally, on a regular basis. Which is really quite extreme there, some of those things that we’re looking at.

John Koetsier: Wow, wow. Interesting. You looked at narcissism as well, and of course this is the selfie generation, right? So we see a lot of that, but you actually caught a lot of young people self-reporting as narcissistic.

That’s interesting to me. I mean, because typically we consider narcissism not a great thing, not a wonderful thing, not a socially redeeming quality. And yet a lot of people say, yeah, they self-identify as ‘I’m narcissistic.’

Nick Black: Yeah, this is quite an interesting measure. And I’ll pass to Nik in a sec to talk about what might be the reasons behind it, but if we’re looking at narcissism, it’s quite a difficult thing to diagnose. You often have to use a psychologist or a psychiatrist and there’s very long sort of forms you’ve got to go through. We just used a very simple measure, which was a self-identification, and some psychologists have found that actually narcissists  tend to admit that they’re narcissists at a much higher rate than everyone else.

So we asked them, you know, to what degree do you agree with the statement saying, ‘I’m a narcissist,’ eg: self-absorbed and vain. And we found almost a third … so up at 30% of those 16 to 29 year olds self-identifying here as narcissists, compared to again 5% at the 60+ range. So that’s really very, very high and quite concerning. And maybe Nik can speak a little bit about why that might be.

Nikolas Badminton: Yeah, I mean there are other studies that talk about the aspirations of American youth, and there was one particular study, I think it was actually run by Lego, and actually found that the number one occupation that American youth wanted to have was ‘Youtuber.’ Which is ultimately … it’s like the ultimate narcissistic holding a camera in front of your face like, ‘Hey guys, blah, blah, blah, like talking to account and not talking to anyone else.’

John Koetsier: Nik, what are you saying about me? What are you saying about me? Come on.

Nikolas Badminton: This is it right? Well the thing is, if it was just you talking to yourself on the camera, I’d kind of be a little bit worried about having this conversation. What was really interesting is it was Lego I think, actually found that on the flip side you look to China, the number one occupation that kids wanted to be was astronaut. And I think that was number four or five in the U.S.

The aspirations had been flipped on their heads.

And you know you’re seeing these influencers that are suddenly earning like $10, $20 million a year. I think the biggest paid YouTuber in the world is like eight years old and makes about $16, $18 million a year. So it’s dragging people down economically into this ideal that suddenly this phone, these cameras, this identity, the sense of ‘look at me, look at me’ is gonna lead themselves out of their current situation.

Nick Black: One other thing that I’d add there as well that’s a possibility, is the idea that you’re going to rely totally on yourself and just focus on yourself versus falling into the safety net of society, community, the things around you. I think also possibly what could be contributing to this is for this younger generation just a sense that listen, there is unstable work, it’s unstable society, it’s unstable politics.

The only thing I can rely on is myself, so I’m going to make myself this kind of almost omnipotent godlike kind of thing that doesn’t rely on anyone for my income, doesn’t rely on anyone for love, for attachment, any of those sorts of things. It’s also a possibility there.

John Koetsier: Wow. I don’t know how well that’s going to work out for anybody but… You also talk about this concept of digital obesity. And I think when anybody hears that these days, when they’re fairly technological, they probably have some idea what that means. But can you dive into that a little bit?

Nick Black: Sure, yeah. So what we’re very interested in looking at here was obviously we’d seen some of these challenges emerging, particularly for younger people. And we were looking for what could be something that’s contributing to this. So we looked at the amount of minutes that people were spending in online apps, social media, so for example, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and then we looked at the association between those amount of minutes that people were spending in these platforms, and then their mental health.

And we found again, if people were spending over four hours online in any of these sort of social media or apps then there was a quite a significant spike in their rates of depression, narcissism, and anxiety. And so we’d say, look, there seems to be a bit of a problem here with being behind these sort of gated applications and what it’s doing to people’s mental health. And I guess the real challenge here is that on average,

Americans were spending 300 minutes or actually five hours in apps and online platforms in general. So they’re already one hour above that kind of cap point where we’re seeing a lot of these spikes and risks.

John Koetsier: It’s really interesting that you mentioned that, because I was just interviewing a VP from HootSuite and they did a major digital 2020 study and we talked about it and there was a country, and I forget, I’ll put it in the article that I write for Forbes about this, but there was a country that had like six hours on average or something like that in digital. It was insane.

EDIT: The company was Hootsuite, the number was actually 10 hours, and the country was the Philippines. See that entire story here.

Nik you wanted to add something to that I think.

Nikolas Badminton: Yeah. What’s really interesting about this idea of obesity, it’s a constant craving, but it’s fed by algorithms, right? So it’s the devs and the people that are doing psychological studies about getting cause and effect. If we do this, then we’re going to get people to share like that. But what’s really interesting is the majority of time that people were spending online were in the Facebook family of applications, and close behind that was actually time spent on Amazon. So it’s not just social media, it’s suddenly this ecosystem has become social, commerce, and then obviously you add things like YouTube and Tik Tok to this as well.

It’s become a perfect storm and I honestly believe that we’ve become completely surrounded by the algorithms that are dragging us in deeper than ever before. And people feel the isolation and the stress to even partake in part of that as well. And I sort of wonder, over the next sort of 5, 10, 20 years, what long range effects that’s going to have overall on society, familial units and relationships.

Nick Black: John, you mentioned as well just before, you know that some people were reporting up to six hours a day. I mean, in our study, when we were looking at 16 to 29 year olds they were up on average at 8.5 hours a day.

John Koetsier:  Wow!

Nick Black: Just like off the charts. And I guess the other thing that I’m throwing around this concept or construct of digital obesity, we use this analogy because you know in the 80’s when obesity really started to become a bit of a thing across America, there was this idea that you could see this epidemic, it was visible. The problem with what we’re potentially seeing here with digital minutes and digital obesity, is it is largely invisible, and even some of the ramifications are also invisible. If you’re looking at mental health outcomes or a sense of loneliness, you can’t see that, and yet it is actually real, you know? And that’s why we wanted to throw out this concept of obesity as an analogy for what could be going on here.

John Koetsier:  I understand, understand. So you found significant challenges. And Nikolas, one of the things that you’ve prided yourself on as a futurist is you know what, the future’s not always dark and it’s not always dystopian, and there is a positive, good, healthy future out there. What’s the positive, healthy future here?

Nikolas Badminton: Well. What’s really interesting is we have to look to the application architects, the people that are building these platforms, and really ask them to step up and recognize this kind of behavior, the negative force that it’s having on society, and to actually put mechanisms in place not only to say, ‘hey, careful, you’re spending a lot of time on this platform in these certain ways, we’re concerned,’ but actually putting in mechanisms that people can self-select themselves to have moderate to even low amounts of usage on these platforms.

There’s an amount of self-policing but also algorithmic policing so that we’re not actually forcing people into these algorithmic traps that are really creating a psychological future that’s not going to be good for society as a whole. That responsibility towards society has to come from like Facebook and YouTube and Tik Tok and all these people. But right now all they want to do is harvest the largest amount of advertising revenue they can from those minutes online.

And I think we need to change what those metrics are, because the minutes online seems to be incredibly damaging for people.

Nick Black: And I think if we’re looking at the data, you can see this data online, we published it. And we look at the, you know, there’s less than an hour, hour to four hours, and four hours and above. It’s the 4 hours and above that your rates and spikes above the average really start to come in for depression, anxiety, narcissism.

That 1-4 hours is sort of a sweet spot where you’re basically no more or less likely than the average American to have anxiety, depression, narcissism. But then to be honest, it’s less than an hour where you see the real benefits of this, it’s people that are spending less than an hour a day on social media or online that are just way below in terms of the numbers for depression, anxiety, and narcissism.

You know, if there was a gold standard of where you might want to get to, I think it could be that less than an hour.

John Koetsier:  Wow, wow. Interesting. And that seems probably almost impossible for those of us who are digital natives, right? I mean, I’m on my laptop or my phone a lot of time, I don’t even want to count the hours. It’s probably way too much. Most of it is work-related, or talking to people like you, or writing, or other things like that, but there’s, yeah, there’s some Tik Tok time there too.

Nikolas Badminton: What I find really interesting is we’re in this age of the pandemic …

John Koetsier: Yes we are.

Nikolas Badminton: … the pandemic, the infodemic, the constant feed of news. We have to know what’s going on. And it’s dragging us even deeper into a situation. I mean, what is it like your Google, your I think Slack recently you mentioned they’re all going completely remote. A lot of different companies, I mean there are school systems that are closing down around the world and down in the States as well. And I think we’re forcing ourselves into an online ecosystem, but I think we need to really recognize that there’s productivity applications.

And then there’s like wasting time applications, you know, things that aren’t necessarily even useful from a communication perspective. So I don’t think we can say verbatim that online is bad, but social, algorithmically driven, connection-based kind of applications that drag you deeper into content, connections, liking, loving … and you are, you’re literally getting obese at the end of the day from the amount of like neuronal connections that you’re getting through an algorithm that suddenly the dopamine has got you. And I don’t think you get the same kind of dopamine hit from say, writing a 1,500 word article, right John?

John Koetsier:  That that may not be true, although it is good to finish things and it feels good. That’s really interesting, the comment that you just made, and it kind of brings it back full circle. I mentioned coronavirus right off the top. And what is one of the phrases that is the phrase of early 2020 … it’s social distancing, right? Social distancing. I mean we need space between us so that we don’t infect each other is the idea, is the thinking, and there’s reality to that, and that space between us is driving us more to our digital devices. I was watching something from China last night and the gaming there is off the roof!

I interviewed James Ren who is a sales executive in Beijing about two weeks ago, and he left his house once every three days. Once every three days to get groceries and other stuff, other than that … oh, he would leave his house half an hour each day to walk his dog and that was it. Wasn’t seeing family, wasn’t seeing friends, wasn’t going to the office, and he was online the entire day. So gaming is off the charts in China, schools are closed. We’re seeing that in probably 80 countries right now. Probably coming soon to Canada, certainly happening in some places in the U. S., this is a real challenge.

Nick Black: One thing that I’d maybe add to that narrative too, ’cause I think certainly it has a risk of perpetuating the sense of isolation and loneliness that youth are feeling. But the other thing too is that in order to kind of curtail the pandemic, a lot of the discussion is around the need for younger people to isolate in particular, because there’s less of a risk to them with health, but they’re also much more socially active. I think one of the challenges here that you’re seeing, certainly with our data, is these are the same people that are reporting off the charts level of stress with their finances and work anyway. It’s already almost at 50% for those youth.

Now we’re going to expect these people to potentially not go to work, to self isolate. This is a real challenge for this generation because they’re already dealing with probably quite insecure work. Often they’re the ones that are kind of in this gig economy. What does it mean dropping out of the gig economy when you’ve got no other source of income and you’re already under financial pressure? Is that even possible for a lot of these younger people? So I think this is going to be quite an interesting intersection here where you’re seeing life and financial stress of caring for younger people and the demands that are being placed on them might not be feasible for them.

John Koetsier: Yeah, it’s super challenging times and it’s not going to get easier. It’s going to get worse. I mean everything, it’s cancel culture right now.  And so we’re hunkering down at home, we’re battening down the hatches, we’re loading up with food and apparently toilet paper ’cause that’s essential. But, wow … anyways, I want to thank you guys for being on the show today and want to thank you for your insights and appreciate your time.

For everybody else who’s joining us. Thank you for joining me on TechFirst, my name again is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride. Whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, or all of the above. If you’re listening to the podcast a little later on, please rate it and review it, that’d be a massive help. Thank you so much.

Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.