Ping! The complicated balance of life interrupted by mobile notifications | Technology
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Ping! The phone makes a sound that we have learned to identify as a notification. Or maybe it just vibrates or maybe even the only thing we see is that the screen turns on. But we know what it means: someone or something on the other side requires our attention.
Depending on the situation in which we find ourselves, we will take the device and see what happens. We may just dismiss the notification, just see what it is on the lock screen and do nothing, or we may end up opening the app that sends it. Even when we decide to ignore the alert and don’t even bother to look at the phone, the interruption is already done. It’s time to go back to what we were doing. Of course, we will blame the mobile for our concentration problems.
We are very internalized that the phone calls us when we are not paying attention to it (or when we are: a study whose data was collected in 2016 in Spain found that between 20 and 35% of notifications arrived with the phone already unlocked , i.e. probably in use). That same study concluded that users received an average of 56 daily notifications, somewhat less than what was recorded by the same authors in a 2014 analysis. In other words, on average, the smartphone does ping more than twice an hour. Although at first the notifications were thought of as something useful, to avoid having to enter the different applications to see if there was something pending, that has not been the case for a long time. How insignificant many of them are explains why an excess of notifications is one of the reasons that can lead a user to uninstall an application.
“Notifications, for companies, are a very powerful tool because they reach the main screen of the mobile. It is a very immediate communication that can be sent in a very segmented way”, explains Diana Gavilán, professor and researcher in the area of Experiential-Sensory Marketing and Consumer Behavior at the Complutense University of Madrid. The expert explains that all notifications seek the same thing, that the user interacts, but that care must be taken not to be annoying. “There comes a time when the user either receives value or what they say is ‘this doesn’t interest me, it bothers me, it interrupts me,’” she says.
This giving value consists of providing some type of benefit such as a discount or useful information for the user at that precise moment, something that can be achieved through all the data collected by the phone, such as geolocation. However, the balance is delicate. “It’s not entirely resolved when you bother and when you don’t. Nor how much information you have to have from a user to achieve it. I don’t know if I prefer to be disturbed and interrupted than to have me watched, ”she points out.
Gabriela Paoli, an expert psychologist in digital health and technological addictions, believes that the most important thing is not so much the interruption itself caused by notifications, but rather being permanently exposed and available for those interruptions to enter. “It is proven that to recover that level of concentration that you had prior to the notification and the interruption, we need between five and eight minutes. With every interruption we are losing quality and productivity. And mental health, because it depends on the message that enters us, it can destabilize us, ”she points out.
In addition, the expert talks about digital empathy, the effect that it can have on our social relationships that we are aware of all the pings that the mobile makes. “I think it is as simple as not losing our scale of values, our priorities. If it’s time to visit mom and dad, the phone is put in airplane mode. Why? Because I’m giving top priority to that dinner or that birthday or that event,” she notes.
Silence makes us nervous
Aware of this disruptive power of mobile alerts, attempts are being made to give users more power over them: in addition to having to give the apps permission to send them to us, we can choose different sounds for different types of notifications, do that the mobile simply vibrate or directly silence them.
There are quite a few studies that have tried to shed light on how users manage notifications, some with quite surprising results. For example, it’s easy to assume that if we don’t engage with one of these alerts it’s because we don’t consider it important, but an experiment from 2019 found that many more factors came into play and that many users ignore or dismiss most of the notifications they receive. whether they consider them important or not. As for the reasons why we can silence the phone, in addition to preventing it from interrupting us, a 2021 study tested another motivation: concern for the well-being of the people around us, the digital empathy Paoli was talking about. In other words, we don’t want to bother ourselves, but neither do we want to bother whoever is around us. In addition, notifications interrupt us even if we ignore them: according to another study, this one from 2022, which monitored the movements of the participants’ wrists while they performed a high-intensity activity, that movement decreased when receiving a notification, whether they attended to it or not .
One of the most common tips to prevent notifications from disrupting our concentration is to simply get rid of them: if the phone doesn’t ring, we think, we won’t look at it. However, several investigations have concluded that this is not the case. One of the most cited is the one carried out by Martin Pielot and Luz Rello in 2017, who discovered that going 24 hours without notifications did make participants feel more productive and less distracted, but also more anxious and less connected with their social group. In fact, almost half of the participants admitted that the fear of missing important notifications led them to check if there was something new on the phone more often.
The trick, according to a 2019 study, is to group the notifications: participants who received them all together three times a day had the best time; the group without notifications felt more anxious and the group that received them every hour as stressed and distracted as when they receive them organically.
Although all this research shows some clear trends, none of them gives a definitive answer to how notifications affect us and what we should do to live more peacefully. This could be due, according to a study recently published in Computers in Human Behavior, to our different psychological traits. Thus, users with a greater tendency to FOMO (fear of missing outor fear of missing out) or those who show a greater need to belong to a group look at the phone more when it is silent.
S. Shyam Sundar, one of the authors of the study, explains to EL PAÍS that the conclusion is not that silencing the phone is bad. “Low FOMO individuals would likely benefit from muting notifications on their phones. For these people, notifications were a distraction when they were turned on, but muting them will keep them from bothering them with something they won’t really miss,” he says. As for the rest of the users, the researcher believes that this need to look at the phone every so often would disappear in situations that distract us from thinking about our mobiles and social contacts. “That is, they should be busy in another way, so they don’t have the mental bandwidth to sit around and wonder what they’re missing on their phones,” he concludes.
Self-awareness and self-control
If completely getting rid of notifications can be counterproductive, but leaving them on will mess up our concentration, what is the solution? Sundar thinks there are apps like Screen Time — an iOS app that tells you how much time you spend on your phone — that could help. “If those apps can lead users to delve into the kinds of apps that annoy or distract them, they can take steps to turn them off. Furthermore, if these apps allowed users to distinguish between more and less important types or sources of notifications, just as they already do with different sounds, even those with the most FOMO could reduce their dependency,” he explains.
For Gabriela Paoli, this self-awareness through applications that help you reduce dependence on the phone is also the first step: knowing how much time we spend on the mobile, in which applications, and how it affects us in our personal or professional lives. From there, he proposes drawing up an action plan and asking ourselves how we want our digital selves to be: are we someone who always answers at the moment or does our environment know that this availability is not total and, therefore, we can be less aware of notifications? In some cases, she adds, it can also be helpful to go back to the “dumb phone” for personal life. “That only family and friends have that phone and that they know that to locate you they have to call you. And you also know that you have that possibility of connecting with others through a call”, she points out.
Finally, the most important thing is to change the relationship we have with the phone and its notifications, to re-educate ourselves digitally. “We are aware of what we are doing wrong. We should stop to repair, practice self-control and self-regulation. That is, try not to be overcome by that immediate impulse, ”he says.
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