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Digital multitasking sends our brains into overdrive

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we work and how we communicate with our colleagues. Many people around the world were forced to work remotely at some point or another making use of different digital technologies. It is well documented that online platforms paved the way for immediate access to institutional resources and knowledge as well as constant interaction with colleagues.

Despite the affordances and many positive outcomes associated with the ability to be in constant contact with colleagues, the potential problems of the increased ubiquitous nature of digital technologies should be critically considered. The notion of digital wellbeing is coming to the fore as a subject of possible concern and renewed focus. Ironically, the rapid rise and sophisticated development of digital technologies can contribute to our general health and wellbeing, but the opposite is also alarmingly evident. 

Digital wellbeing asks employees to be aware of their personal relationship and work-life balance in an all-encompassing digital environment. Aspects such as our ability to successfully negotiate information overload, digital workload and continuous digital distractions are some of the attributes that are expected of well-rounded employees. Digital wellbeing furthermore speaks to individuals’ understanding of the potential risks associated with being constantly connected. 

One of the activities that we are increasingly involved in because of numerous hours in front of computer screens, is multitasking. Although we often equate such practices to sufficiency and good organisational skills, some scholars argue that the ability to multitask effectively does not really exist. 

For example, in The Myth of Multitasking Nancy Napier makes the point that we actually switch between activities within a very short time span, which equates to increased pressure being placed on our cognitive abilities and resources. Another worrying aspect is that continuous exposure to digital technologies could potentially have an effect on employees’ attention span. 

The fast-paced, just-in-time environment inhibits our ability to concentrate and focus on single tasks in the necessary depth and detail. Access to laptops, smart devices, email, the internet, social media and so forth, contribute to our brains working in overdrive. 

Furthermore, those employees that spend excessive time in front of their devices start to experience side-effects such as neck and back pain, strain on the eyes and disrupted sleep patterns. Productivity could be impacted due to constant interruptions and distractions of notifications and could influence the work-life balance of employees. Although social media was a mediating tool in connecting us with colleagues and loved ones during prolonged periods of isolation and lockdown, these platforms could also result in continuous access to marketing campaigns, disturbing news and withdrawal from physical contact with loved ones. 

The continuous bombardment with information through digital device use could potentially lead to what Larry Rosen calls an idisorder. In his book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us (2012), Rosen argues that an idisorder is not a demarcated diagnosed disorder with a list of clearly indicated symptoms. Rather, it is “something fluid enough to be unique to every particular person”. The assumption is made that overexposed digital technology use could potentially trigger or manifest psychological symptoms that are latent in individuals.

Employees who experience flourishing wellbeing, however, manage to focus on personal growth, meaning making and drawing on mindful daily encounters with our digital devices. They manage to create a carefully crafted balance between regular exercise, balanced meals and quality sleep patterns. 

Given all the dire warning signs, organisations should try to raise a sense of awareness of the importance of finding a balance between employees’ engagement with digital devices and practices, and a life void from such distractions and interventions. One such way is to underline the importance of flourishing. 

In the APA Dictionary of Psychology (2015), Gary VandenBos explains that flourishing refers to a state of optimal wellbeing and denotes good mental and physical health. This state can be reached by focusing on the areas of mental health, physical health, productivity, relationships, general wellbeing and digital citizenship. Employees should be encouraged to prioritise these different aspects in order to aim for a state of flourishing in a digitally mediated world. 

Clearly, many of the above-mentioned aspects remain the responsibility of the individual and require a level of agency to be constantly aware of the positive and negative effects of the digital in our lives and work spaces. Raising awareness of the potential dangers and the necessity to objectively and carefully consider employees’ relationship with digital devices and its effects, could enhance our general sense of wellbeing, encouraging us to manage information and disruptions and to also connect as far as possible beyond the digital screens. It is all about the right relationship with our digital devices.

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Sonja Strydom
Dr Sonja Strydom is the co-founder of the African Digital University Network and teaches on various courses focusing on the integration of technology-mediated practices in the higher education curriculum. Her current research focuses on critical digital pedagogies and digital wellbeing.
Elmien Sinclair
Dr Elmien Sinclair is a registered educational psychologist and heads the Unit for Academic Counselling and Development at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in positive psychology, student wellbeing and promoting student success.
Christa Koch
Christa Koch is a practising educational psychologist, mainly providing support services to students in higher education. She has an interest in the learning process and the various factors that either enhance or debilitate students’ ability to effectively learn and develop.

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