Numbers argue we're never without technology

I started this weekend with a laudable goal:  catch-up on all the news headlines I've been saving to read when I get a chance. It seems that each day we hear new statistics about how inextricably enmeshed we are with technology:  33% of us use smartphones; 65% of adults are on a social networking site such as Facebook; 80% of us have looked for health information online; the average person sends and receives 41.5 text messages in a typical day; and the average teenager spends almost 11 hours a day packing in media content. Can these numbers be true?  If you were an alien living on the far-side of the Moon and all you knew about humanity was what you learned from these technology headlines, you'd imagine a society in which people spent more time clacking on a keyboard and pecking on smartphones than talking, eating, or sleeping. The truth is, most of us do some of these activities some of the time, but few of us know or work with people who are always texting facebooking and  tweeting.

When one looks behind the numbers, another story emerges.  Let's take the statistic that the average person sends about 1250 texts per month, or 41 texts per day.   Does this mean that most of us send or receive 2.5 texts every waking hour of every day?  Not exactly.  While the average number of texts is quite high, the median number of text is only 10 - in other words, if you line up a hundred people from lowest number of texts per day to highest, the person in the middle would only send 10 a day.  This median number of 10 is probably more believable for most of us. Can you say that about half the people you know send or receive more than 10 texts a day and about half don't Seems believable to me.

Similar distortions come from print, online, and television-based media. Almost everywhere we look we see symbols for Facebook and Twitter, implying that everyone is using these media.  But the reality is that less than 12% of adults are on twitter and it's not clear what the majority of people are really doing on Facebook. (Does having a profile page and flipping through the pictures of an old friend from high school really "count" as being a social networking user?)

Headlines also cheat us out of the bigger picture. It's not totally clear from a single statistic as to what the total picture looks like as it relates to an individual person. For example, if we read that over half of us are texting and over half of us are on Facebook, it's easy to feel that everybody is engaging in all sorts of online connectivity, whereas the truth may actually be that those who are heavy texters are less likely to engage in a site like Facebook because they've already identified texting as their preferred method of communication. I suspect the truth likely resides in the fact that most of us adults chose one or two preferred methods of technology communication, and that very few people meaningfully engage in more than these.

Statistics which report large scale participation in technology usage often distort the public discourse around technology. For those who feel a bit behind the leading edge in technology at baseline (Prinsky's so-called Digital Immigrants), statistics such as these only add to the feeling that the world is rushing past them. The belief that technology is dominating our every waking breath may make us feel more threatened than we need to.

My personal tipping point of knowing that we've reached the point of ultimate technology absorption will be when I see a spike in ER visits for people walking into poles while using their smartphones (another banner headline which, while sensational, still appears to be a rare event). Until then, I'll send an occasional tweet, sporadically update my Facebook profile, send a text or two as I try to coordinate plans for tonight, and spend the rest of my weekend reading an old-fashioned book under a tree.

Copyright Tristan Gorrindo, MD, 2011

About the Authors

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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