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Study shows one in three people have felt overwhelmed by communications technology


parents encouraged to strike a balance

An international study, led by the University of Cambridge*, has found that one in three people has felt overwhelmed by communications technology, including texting, email and social networking, to the point that they feel they need to escape it. However, some simple steps have been identified to help improve well-being and to avoid technology overwhelming family life according to the BT-sponsored study released today (Tuesday 5 July 2011).

Despite most families seeing communications technology as a positive tool, a survey conducted as part of the study revealed that feeling overwhelmed by communications technology is similar for adults and children, with 38% of 10 – 18 years old claiming to feel this way and 25 – 34 year olds not far behind, with 34% of that age group feeling overwhelmed.

Furthermore, the survey of 1,269 people and in-depth interviews with families in the UK revealed that those people who have frequently felt overwhelmed are also more likely to feel less satisfied with their life as a whole. Conversely, those who felt in control of their use of communications technology were more likely to report higher levels of overall life satisfaction. This has led BT to introduce a ‘five-a-day’ Balanced Communications Diet to help families get the most out of communications.

The research shows that children in the UK still prefer to communicate face-to-face, dispelling the myth that they only communicate via technology or are losing the desire and ability to participate in in-person interactions. Moreover, 65% of those surveyed in the UK cited face-to-face conversation as their preferred method of communication. This was actually found to be almost the same for both adults (65%) and children (64%).

The study found that many people are consciously controlling their use of technology with 36% of adults and 43% of young people (aged 10 – 18) taking steps to limit usage. Just under half (42%) of adults and children surveyed have prioritised reducing usage of social networking sites, this was followed by a reduction in sending text messages (20%), and then emails (19%).

Professor John Clarkson, director of the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge and Principal Investigator of the study, believes that those families who had better understanding of their use of communications technology in general appeared to have a more balanced and positive relationship with technology. He said:

“Communications technology is changing the way that society interacts and now, with the explosion in personal communications devices, WiFi and increasing broadband speeds, is a great time to start charting this change. There is much discussion about whether communications technology is affecting us for the better or worse. The research has shown that communications technology is seen by most as a positive tool but there are examples where people are not managing usage as well as they could be – it is not necessarily the amount but the way in which it is used.”

Gavin Patterson, chief executive of BT Retail, commented: “Families and individuals who had rules in place to govern communications technology usage almost universally felt positively about the impact it has on their lives,” he said. “Importantly, the research revealed that technology itself is not the problem. Compare it to food. To stay healthy, you need to eat a balanced diet. The same is true when it comes to using technology; you need to find a balance which works for you. To help with this, we are launching the Balanced Communications Diet, our equivalent of the five a day you need to help maintain a healthy relationship with technology.”

Susannah Rolph, mother of three from Norwich, who was interviewed for the qualitative part of the study said: “Social networks, mobile email and online gaming are a positive part of modern family life. However, I am aware of being tempted to stay on Facebook or email, or whatever it is, and do ‘just a little bit more’ online.

“As parents, it is our responsibility to set an example around technology usage, while setting guidelines to help our children maintain some balance. For example we only have one main computer for the family and so we are always aware of who is doing what and we are all physically together sharing the online experience. Also, I always make sure we regularly spend time together, completely away from technology.”

As part of the research, 63 families from across the world kept a weekly diary of their hour-by-hour use of communications technology. Interestingly, many decided to make changes to their behaviour after filling out the diaries.

Sarah Jones, mother of four from Newmarket commented after the study: “The weekly diary of communications was an eye opener for me and my family. It made me realise that I actually spend more time online than I thought. As a result, I have taken steps to reduce time spent online and, for example I now don’t turn the computer on until lunchtime. “

In addition to the UK, the study also covered the US, Australia and China. Other findings in the UK include:
• Disruption to family life: 36% parents surveyed found that technology at least sometimes disrupted family life.
• Technology free time: Three in five people (58%) said that they felt their family would benefit from having technology-free time when all communications technology was switched off.
• Amount of technology use: Nearly one in five people (19%) use communication technology for more than seven hours per day.
• Future prediction of use: Around a third (37%) thought their use of communications technology would increase in the future and half (54%) said that they believe they will be using the same amount of communication technology.

To help adults and children maintain a ‘Balanced Communications Diet’, using the research BT has identified the ‘five a day’ which people might use to help them have a healthy relationship with these technologies.

* Culture. Communication and Change:
An investigation of the use and impact of modern media and technology in our lives
Anna Mieczakowski, Tanya Goldhaber and John Clarkson
June 2011

The BT Balanced Communications Diet
Be aware
Before you can make any changes, you need to understand how you and your family are using technology.
Many families who took part in the research were surprised and at times dismayed by their technology habits. Keeping a log of your family’s use of technology will help you identify good and bad habits and also changes you may want to make.

Location, location, location
Think about where technology is located in the home.
Parents often complained that their children abandoned family time to go on the computer or video game console in their room. Similarly, children reported feeling that they lost out on parents’ attention when they were ’quickly’ checking up on work in the home office. Keeping computers and consoles in a central location will allow your family to share what they are doing online, or at least all be in the same place while using technology.

Have rules
Set some boundaries about how, when and where technology is used.
Our research showed that rules around technology usage reduced anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. The rules are up to you: try removing technology from the dinner table, organise a family games evening either with or without technology, use parental controls to manage use of social networks or the time spent on the family computer, or agree limits on the number of text messages sent in a day.
Just remember, whatever rules are introduced, it’s important to talk them through and agree them as a family – and parents sometimes need just as many rules as children!

Be a good example: teach and demonstrate the importance of balance and safety in the way technology is used.
It’s important for parents to set good examples, so think about your own behaviour. For example,
avoid checking your smart phone unnecessarily when with your family. It’s easy for children to pick
up bad habits from you.

In addition, children are using technology at an increasingly early age and teaching safe and
responsible use is vital from the outset, it’s important to make sure your children are taking the right
steps to keep themselves safe.

Find your Balance
Don’t be concerned by overly positive or negative hype about communications technology. Every family and individual uses technology differently. We hope that this advice helps you find a healthy balance for you so that you have control of technology and are making the most of all forms of communication whether it’s by phone, email, social media or face-to-face.

A copy of BT’s a Balanced Communications Diet can be downloaded at:


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