THE BLOG

Is Your Digital Diet the Equivalent of Junk Food?

08/17/2012 05:37 EDT | Updated 10/17/2012 05:12 EDT
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A recent study commissioned by Time Inc. and conducted by Innerscope Research found that digital natives, the generation that's grown up with mobile technology as part of their everyday lives, switch their attention between media platforms 27 times per hour, or almost once every two minutes.

The study looked into the media consumption habits of digital natives and digital immigrants, the older generation coming to terms with the rapid and recent changes in digital and mobile technology. By connecting participants to biometric devices that monitored their moods and special glasses that tracked eye movement, the study also showed that digital natives experienced fewer emotional highs and lows as they jumped from platforms and media content. In fact, digital natives used media platforms to regulate their mood, switching once they were bored.

This can be explained by that fact that digital natives tend to be more non-linear, meaning that they were more comfortable jumping into the middle of a story, or starting at the end. Digital immigrants, however, were linear, enjoying starting at the beginning of a story -- the old fashion way of consuming content.

Given the speed and ubiquity of news and information in our supercharged digital landscape, digital natives appear to have developed consumption habits that match the tempo of this constant stream of content, switching from laptop screen to smartphone screen, from TV screen to Xbox console -- opening up hundreds of tabs in one sitting. But like binge eaters filling an emotional void, are digital natives merely gorging themselves on empty calories?

This is the argument in Clay Johnson's recently published book, The Information Diet. Johnson believes that the incredible ease and access of all types of information has led many of us to consume far too much frivolous information -- a veritable buffet of what he calls "bad information."

How important is it to know whether or not Khloe Kardashian is actually a Kardashian? Did you really need to click on that link for the two faced cat found in China? By pandering to our bases desires, Johnson asserts, media organizations are abandoning their public mission and instead feeding citizen with nothing but junk.

Johnson endorses a healthier way of consuming content, with The Information Diet as a sort of civic-minded manifesto on how to become intellectually more robust.

But apart from the information we consume the broader trend is that outlets will continue serving up what we will continually click through and read, even if that ultimately leads to consumers with lean minds and flabby souls. And as smartphone adoption continues to accelerate the information habits of digital natives may soon become the new normal.

Earlier this year a comScore report found that smartphone penetration had reached 45 per cent in Canada, as more and more Canadians decided to leap into the future. By 2016, 62 per cent, or close to 17 million Canadians, will own a smartphone. With average smartphone usage going up, users have begun exhibiting a peculiar habit charmingly described as "snacking."

And eMarketer recently found that the "smartphone class" is always on and always snacking, forecasting double digit growth in mobile gaming and video consumption among smartphone user by 2015.

In March of this year, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry, smartphone user spent 231 minutes on average using photo and video apps. That number was a dramatic increase from last March when smartphone users spent just 89 minutes using similar apps.

Time spent on mobile apps continues to outpace time spent on desktops, and this trend is already causing headaches for Facebook, who now sees more than half its daily users accessing the site on mobile phones, a medium it has been unable to monetize. When it comes to consuming content, smartphone users are eager to do it anywhere, anytime.

Daniel Bader, a senior editor at the Canadian technology blog Mobile Syrup, sees smartphone manufactures adapting to this trend. "Manufacturers have attempted to consolidate all our data in one place," notes Bader, describing how the cloud is making it easier to access content seamlessly from screen to screen.

As a category, however, Bader suggested that snacking has simply replaced other time-wasting activities that existed before smartphones. "The snacking nature of the smartphone owes itself to the fact that its users are always doing something else, and are rarely making use of the smartphone as a primary activity, unless it's a means to an end such as looking up directions on a map," said Bader.

Still, Bader accepts that the new information environment has caused digital natives to be easily distracted and points out that our tendency to multitask and the rush of our day-to-day lives makes snacking so appealing.

One thing is clear, the consumption habits of digital natives and smartphone power users in general have created new rules of social etiquette. How and when we use our smartphones during social interactions is as important as how we set the table. And regardless of whether or not we're snacking on the frivolous or the uplifting, manners ultimately determine how well we restrain our appetites.