Opening Our Eyes (and Taking Them Off Our Smartphones) to Examine Digital Habits, 0820 RIBJ, RIBJ, 69 RI Bar J., No. 1, Pg. 9

AuthorJenna Giguere, Esq. Deputy Chief of Legal Services Department of Business Regulation
PositionVol. 69 1 Pg. 9

Opening Our Eyes (and Taking Them Off Our Smartphones) to Examine Digital Habits

Vol. 69 No. 1 Pg. 9

Rhode Island Bar Journal

August, 2020

July, 2020

Jenna Giguere, Esq. Deputy Chief of Legal Services Department of Business Regulation

These behavioral addiction concerns predate the ubiquity of the smartphone, but the smart-phone’s role as a tool that “enables” workaholics and exists as a 24/7 “temptation” to get sucked into workaholic behavior is undeniable.

As we have all experienced, one of the many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our daily lives is the shift to a virtual world. The situation has forced our workplaces to become digitized and transitioned personal interactions that were previously face-to-face to digital mediums. This article discusses the lawyer wellness issue of digital “addiction” as well as covering some interesting legislative proposals to regulate digital habits. There was already reason for some concern with our digital habits before COVID-19, and the references discussed in this article pre-date the pandemic. Now, raising awareness around these issues is even more critical as we are all adjusting to the “new normal” of this unprecedented time period of social distancing.

The business self-help book genre offers titles addressing the individual pursuit to manage healthy digital habits, i.e. how we use our digital devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) for social media, internet, and other digital uses. In one such title, Digital Minimalism,1 author Cal Newport defines the problem to sell his book’s solution. He cites multidisciplinary references, examining economic drivers and behavioral addiction concepts like intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval. For example, the Facebook “like” button can be addictive when a person feels compelled to make a post and then check and re-check the “likes.” The thumbs up symbol is a powerful representation of social approval, for which humans have a primal need traceable back to likeability as a survival determinant in stone age times (access to food depended on retaining a position in a social group of hunters and gatherers). Any given post could be a hit or a miss in delivering varying units of the hungered-for thumbs up. Newport likens this scenario to historic animal behavior studies showing pigeons incessantly pecking at buttons that deliver unpredictable amounts of pellet food (theorized to release more feel-good brain chemical dopamine as compared to buttons with predictable allotments of food).[2] As competing players in the “attention economy,” Newport warns readers that digital platforms are rigged to maximize and profit on these addictive qualities. In this “business sector that makes money gathering consumers’ attention and then repackaging and selling it to advertisers,” “extracting eyeball minutes has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil,” Newport dramatically declares.

Some readers may wonder if “digital minimalism” and other suggestions for changing our digital habits are a “solution in search of a problem.” In Digital Minimalism, Newport shares some startling research about persons born between 1995 and 2012. “iGen” is one of the proposed terms to coin this newest generation after the millennials. Newport quotes one researcher warning of the “brink of the worst mental-health crises in decades” from his observations of a “massive increase in anxiety disorders” and “skyrocketed rates of teen depression and suicide.” Newport summarizes the researcher’s hypothesis that “these shifts in mental health correspond ‘exactly’ to the moment when American smartphone ownership became ubiquitous,” with “the defining trait of iGen” being that they “grew up with iPhones and social media.”3

For lawyers more specifically, I think digital habit concerns could be more connected to the smartphone as a representation of the anytime-anywhere office than the above social media example. “Work addiction” or...

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