A scientist's guide to life: Digital living © Jinhwa Jang

A scientist’s guide to life: how to navigate digital living

Modern life can feel like a constant barrage of digital stimuli. Professor of human-computer interaction at University College London Anna Cox tells us how we can navigate it.

Can technology help me with my work/life balance?

Often people find it hard to switch off from work when their phones keep them connected to the office. One option is to set up different email apps so you’re not looking at work stuff in the evening.

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We found that people who did this felt they had a better work/life balance and reported feeling less stressed two months later.

Other helpful strategies include turning off notifications, or removing your smart watch once you get home. It’s about rethinking how you use your technology so you’re in control, not the other way around.

Read more:

How often should I be checking my email?

Emails can be a big distraction. We ran a study where people either responded to their emails as they came in, or tried to just check them once a day.

Doing the latter was difficult, but people did manage to reduce the number of times they checked from eight to three. They found they became more efficient at dealing with their emails and less distracted overall.

Need to know:

  1. Try to check your work email just once a day.
  2. Switch off notifications and separate your work and life apps.
  3. Screens and gaming can be good. Chill out and enjoy.

The thought experiment: What is the carbon footprint of an email? © Raja Lockey

How do I stop myself getting distracted by cat videos?

It’s not just cats. We’ve all experienced clicking away from one screen to find a piece of information, only to be totally side-tracked by emails, social media and information on the internet.

As part of a study, we built a tool that sits in your browser and measures how long you switch away for. People who used it found it helped them to be less distracted and work more efficiently. [The tool is not yet publicly available.]

Should I worry about the amount of time that I spend looking at a screen?

People do worry about screen time, but it’s important to think about what you are doing rather than the total time. Are you watching films? Reading books? Or posting on social media?

Keeping an eye on your usage – by opting to receive regular updates, or downloading a monitoring app – can help you become less stressed about it.

Are video games bad for you?

Not necessarily. Our research suggests that playing video games can help people feel less stressed.

There are many reasons for this. If you’re playing with other people then you have the opportunity to make social connections. Video games give people the chance to experience challenges and overcome them, so you have this sense of mastery, and while you’re engaged in playing, it’s really hard to be worried about work.

You can see how it’s a wonderful distraction.

My children become totally non-responsive when they’re playing video games. How can I get their attention?

If you want to call your kids for dinner, don’t just shout ‘dinner’s ready’. People playing games become very focused.

We’ve tested various distractions and the one thing that works is saying their name. If they don’t respond, they still heard you and then you can get mad at them.

  • This article was first published on BBC Science Focus in April 2019 – subscribe here

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