Digital detox: Could a tech backlash derail your comms strategy?

By Alexander Garrett,

“Is the digital detox set to be 2019’s biggest health fad?” asked a recent headline. The hashtag #DigitalDetox was used 100,000 times on Instagram in 2018, and a wave of recent communications campaigns have capitalised on the trend.

In November 2018, Vienna’s tourist board launched Unhashtag Vienna, a campaign encouraging visitors to avoid social media distractions and explore the city, with the tagline “See Vienna, not #Vienna”. Then, in January, De Montfort University ditched social media for six days to draw students’ attention to its impact on their mental health.

The digital detox trend is a response to growing concerns about smartphone addiction. In 2011, Ofcom found that 37% of adults and 60% of teens were “highly addicted” to their phones. By 2018 that dependency had worsened. Ofcom’s latest research concluded: “People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes… Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35.”

Concerns about the effects of excessive phone use, especially among the young, have inspired resistance movements. In the UK, Time to Log Off is a not-for-profit that encourages people to spend less time on their smartphones: it gives talks to schools and offers its own menu of retreats, workshops and teen camps. In the US, a similar group, Digital Detox, focuses on phone-free retreats, summer camps, workshops and other events.

Tanya Goodin, founder of Time to Log Off, says: “Research shows that one-third of people have tried a digital detox in the past 12 months. The past couple of years have shown that the desire to spend less time online has gone mainstream.”

Among younger consumers, a small but significant minority have decided to live without a smartphone. “Generation Z are much more discerning about screen use than millennials,” adds Goodin. “I asked a group of 15-year-olds how many were thinking of getting an analogue phone, and 10% to 15% said they were.”

For many brands, this is provocative news. Over the past decade, social media has become one of the most important comms channels. Monitoring it, creating content and interacting with consumers online are now bread and butter for PR professionals. Twenty-eight per cent of practitioners surveyed for CIPR’s State of the Profession report said social media was one of the tasks “most commonly” undertaken in their job.

Brands’ appetite for social media shows little sign of waning yet, but Goodin says: “I’ll be surprised if social media continues in its present form beyond two to three years. It’s sucking too much time from people’s day.”

In the meantime, disillusion is growing. Tech brands have the most to lose from a digital backlash, and one of their tactics has been to counter the negativity head-on. Facebook has even published its own thought-leadership piece, ‘Is spending time on social media bad for us?’, concluding, courtesy of research from Carnegie Mellon University, “that people who sent or received more messages, comments and Timeline posts reported improvements in social support, depression and loneliness”. Not many were convinced.

More recently, mobile network Three has been fighting technology’s corner. Its #PhonesAreGood campaign aims “to create a debate about our relationships with phones and how to strike a healthy life-phone balance”. Shadi Halliwell, Three’s chief marketing officer, said: “Although we shouldn’t be on our phones 24/7, if it weren’t for our mobiles, how would you find love while lounging on the sofa? Or buy new shoes while sitting on the toilet?” She added: “It’s our duty to challenge the cynics.”

Vodafone has taken a different tack. It sponsors Be Strong Online, a scheme organised by The Diana Award that has trained 2,600 ambassadors to run digital detox sessions for young people. And in December the company launched a digital parenting website, featuring #Goldilocks, a version of the fairytale rewritten to illustrate the dangers of social media. Helen Lamprell, Vodafone UK’s external affairs director, said: “We know parents want to talk to their children about how to use social media safely and responsibly, but often aren’t sure how. #Goldilocks offers a fun, accessible way to start the conversation with younger children.”

And then there’s the task of promoting products for those seeking a digital detox. Swiss company Punkt makes premium phones with basic call and messaging functions only. Marcia Caines, Punkt’s head of brand comms, says: “[Founder Petter Neby] started Punkt from a conviction that society is becoming too addicted to smartphones, and handing over some of our cognitive intelligence to technology. His idea is to simplify life by decluttering in the digital world and enabling people to stay focused.” Punkt does, ironically, use social media for promotion, but carefully controls the number of its posts. “We came off Facebook this year,” says Caines. “It just didn’t feel beneficial to us.”

It’s absurd to think technology will just go away, but consumers – and the comms professionals who target them – could soon conclude that, as Caines puts it, “social media just isn’t cool any more”.

Alexander Garrett is a freelance journalist and editor of WPP’s Atticus Journal.


A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.

Photo by Aleksandar Cvetanović from Pexels

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