What Are Screens Doing to Us?

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At age 16 my first step towards independence was a driver’s license. I failed the first test and was mortified – parallel parking in a manual shift Dodge Dart wasn’t easy. Most of us boomers have similar stories of lusting for that license and the freedom we imagined came with it. How times have changed. Neither of my 20-something stepdaughters has any interest in driving. Part of the reason is ecological concerns, but more importantly their familiarity with Uber.

Coming of Age in a Digital Age

The first step towards independence for my daughters was getting their own mobile phones. For my youngest, now 21, she has slept through the night with the phone in her hand since she was 14 years old. Even without a credit card, she spent hours mobile shopping. For her and many of her peers across the world, their familiarity with so many brands is uncanny. What is interesting are the gaps. Riding the elevator at Glossier in SoHo I overheard two teenage girls asking who Sally Hansen was.

There is no doubt that humans will become increasingly digitally enhanced. We are in the transitional era of bridging an analog past to a powerful digitally-driven future. As such, it’s confusing, frustrating and disempowering when we get lost in today’s digital world.

There is no question that our exposure to screens is changing the relationship between our eyes and our brains and our psyches and our behavior. Our personal screens from phones and laptops to multiple TVs in our homes and screens at school, the office, in the mall, and across retail have become ubiquitous. What are they doing to us psychologically and emotionally?

Screen Stars

Let’s look back for some context. In 1977 Citi was one of first retail banks to install ATMs in their branches. Young urban workers, particularly women, flocked to the bank as they saw ATM as a time-saving multitasking tool. That banking screen changed our relationship with cash and credit. At the same time, I’m told that the touch screen of ATMs has one of the highest germ counts of any surface in a public place. The self-scanning station at your local supermarket is not far behind. But that doesn’t diminish the transformative power of screens in our lives.

In 1984, Citibank asked a few hundred customers to try out their new online service, citi.com. They shipped out 56k modems to those that accepted. You hooked the modem up to your phone line and Fat Mac’s — and bingo, you were in business. The learning curve took minutes – there were no passwords, no security details. It was an instant revolution. Most of those early users wrote a fraction of the checks they used to. Preparing personal tax returns was so much simpler. It was another major step forward in a digital transformation of modern life. It also changed the role of laptops in our lives.

Mobile Revolution

AT&T in 1986, launched the first AT&T Phone Store, the first major retail venture of a telecom business. Tech was made accessible with telephones and answering and fax machines — and most importantly, AT&T offered a place to buy services where the person in front of you could listen patiently and answer your questions. That store cemented AT&T’s leadership in the U.S. telecom market. Tech retail became both store and temple when Apple hit the streets. It was both a community center and a place to visit, get your questions answered and get problems solved.

Digital Literacy

Our focus on screens became even more acute in a pandemic world. Whether shopping, banking, or dealing with the government, our digital literacy has been challenged. DMV offices closed, bank branches shut down, even the protocols for seeing a doctor or dentist got more complicated. How many of us were in hold for hours only to find we’d called the wrong number for whatever problem we were looking to solve?

Let’s fast forward to 2022. How many of you dear readers are struggling daily with digital literacy issues? From My Chart on my AARP health insurance plan, to We Transfer and even Zoom, the number of passwords for my multiple email accounts and security protocols have become overwhelming. How many times a week am I resetting passwords, much less tearing out what little hair I have left? I ask myself “are these senior moments?” Or is it something else? I worry about technological determinism. Is my behavior and stress level being controlled by technology? I can’t even contemplate the idea that these devices were programmed intentionally to make me crazy.

I am reminded again that today so much of our digital knowledge is still picked up ad hoc. At Macy’s last month I noted the sales associate at the Estee Lauder counter teaching a customer how to use online tools. The introduction of online technologies that let you sample lipsticks and eyeshadows is remarkable. But it takes training/coaching to get the full effect.

Teaching Tools

The new Turkcell store in Istanbul is set up for one-on-one teaching, basically how to get the most out of your new phone. Research has shown that more than 10 percent of customers walking into telecom/tech stores arrive angry having failed to solve their phone problems online or over a call. How does retail manage, much less measure, the role that a physical store has in teaching digital literacy? Much less the impact on sales? Conversion rates, average purchase, sections visited, time in store are metrics so pre-screen.

Starting some 20 years ago, we were asked to test the effectiveness of in-store screens. Back then it was a series of monitors often playing commercials from broadcast television. More than once our research crews would arrive at research location only to be informed that the screens were “down.” We learned quickly that store associates got very tired of listening to the same Chester the Cheetah ad over and over – and found ways to shut him and the screen up. It made simple sense that the impact of a screen or a series of screens in a busy location did not command the same attention as a television set opposite the sofa in your living room. Almost nobody stopped to watch a 30-second commercial. The best exposure rates for in-store screens were in places where people waited – in line at the register … waiting for an order at the deli. Placement and programming have gotten better, but still, we know for many merchants the demographics of visitors by daypart is so predictable – so what is on an in-store screen on Monday morning versus Saturday afternoon should be a no-brainer. Yet to date, the sophistication of many of digital content providers for retail is problematic.

If you asked me for a favorite screen, it was an interactive window I saw in Chelsea, which picked up on the person or persons walking past. They saw themselves out of the corner of their eyes and often startled, they stopped or slowed down. The window then gave them some commercial content. It was art and commerce intertwined.

Digital Horizons

For all the noise coming out of Silicon Alley/Valley we still live in an analog world. We eat, we drink, we swim and exercise. Digital can play a supporting role in all those activities, but the level and mix is still in formation. There is no doubt that humans will become increasingly digitally enhanced. We are in the transitional era of bridging an analog past to a powerful digitally-driven future. As such, it’s confusing, frustrating and disempowering when we get lost in today’s digital world. Next gens have the intuition to adapt and adopt quickly. The rest of us are slogging through. The real question is how is technology changing how we think and behave? There are plenty of real-world problems facing young people, from anxiety, the fear of missing out, bullying, self-worth and self-image. The TikTok screen alone is causing a syndrome of facial tics among young users. The jury is out about how resilient we are (at any age) when we are so dependent on our screens. Digital has liberated us, saved lives and started political revolutions; it has also unleashed the worst in us. Not to be glib, but we live in interesting times.

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