As the world goes into lockdown in response to COVID-19, many of us are relying on digital technologies more than ever. Technologies can of course help us stay productive, but many of us will also take time out to access social media, games, online video sites and the like.
Should we feel guilty about indulging in unproductive technology use? Emerging research suggests that the line between productive and unproductive use is more blurred than you might think.
Working with partners at Stanford and University College London, our research team at the University of Melbourne is investigating the intricate relationship between people’s technology use and their emotional lives. What we are finding suggests that much of our apparently unproductive technology use might actually be a form of useful emotion regulation.
Emotions are adaptations that guide our responses to challenges and opportunities. They can simultaneously involve subjective feelings, physiological changes like blushing, sweating, or increased heart rate, expressive behaviours like facial and body movements, and actions that respond to emotion-provoking situations.
We don’t just evaluate situations - we also evaluate emotions themselves. We may judge an emotion to be undesirable if it seems out of place, like being sad at a party or angry at work, or because we find the emotion unpleasant or painful and want it to stop. When people try to change an emotion, they are engaging in “emotion regulation”.
Tactics for regulating our emotions are many and range from exercise and deep breathing to distraction, re-evaluation, social sharing, and even consuming alcohol or drugs. Newer tactics involve the use of digital technologies.
If you’ve used a smartphone, video game or other technology to distract yourself, to relieve stress, to block thoughts of failure, to focus on a success, to seek alternative perspectives on a troubling situation or to share your emotions with others, you’ve engaged in what we call “digital emotion regulation”.
It may be that digital technologies are enhancing people’s ability to regulate their emotions by enabling these practices at virtually any time and place.
In one of our recent studies we measured the mutual influence between people’s experiences of emotion and their use of particular types of smartphone apps, including work, communication, social and entertainment apps.
We tracked 30 participants, using specialised software installed on their phones to monitor their emotions and their app use, and applied statistical methods to detect not just correlations but also causal relationships between emotions and app use. Participants also told us about their emotional experiences in interviews.
We found that in most cases, the types of app used influenced the emotions people experienced, which isn’t surprising. But in some cases the causality was in the other direction and emotions led people to use particular apps.
For example, experiencing sadness often led to the use of entertainment apps, suggesting people were using these technologies to help them emotionally. Interviews showed that users were aware of this two-way influence, confirming for example that: “YouTube and humour sites make me feel happy” and “If I’m sad I use WeChat to seek support”.
Interestingly, feeling happy led people to use work and productivity apps.
Being able to measure the relationship between an individual’s phone use and emotional states could improve and personalise existing “digital wellness” features that are designed to help people understand and improve their phone habits.
More generally, a better understanding of digital emotion regulation can help us understand why people spend so much time on their devices, especially in challenging or stressful situations.
As you spend more time on your devices, you might want to reflect on how this influences your emotions. A large body of psychology research has shown that an inability to effectively manage emotions can lead to poor outcomes, and that emotion regulation is a normal part of daily life, and essential in many settings.
This is not to argue that problems with technology don’t exist – they do, and we should be alert to them. But it may well be that using social media, trawling the internet for cat videos or playing a computer game sometimes represent useful emotion regulation which ultimately enhances work performance or social harmony.
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