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Look at me! – How digital communication affects our lives

Buzzing, ringing, blinking - the latest news, new e-mails or the latest gossip on social networks compete for our attention. Talking to someone and suddenly turning away because the mobile starts beeping. A child is chatting on the smartphone at the dinner table. Sidestepping “smombies,” pedestrians who are completely out of touch with their surroundings because they are completely focused on their smartphones. Experts call this behavior “phubbing” – a neologism created out of the words “phone” and “snubbing.” Business informatics expert Prof. Hanna Krasnova examines the consequences of being permanently online in our private and professional lives. 

When Hanna Krasnova enters the lecture hall to give a lecture, she knows that not all of her students will follow her attentively. When standing at the lectern and looking at the rows of students, she often sees lowered heads. The students’ gaze is directed at displays and monitors, not at her. She has to compete with a strong opponent for the students’ attention: the digital world, always available via smartphone, tablet and laptop, in the lecture hall and everywhere else.
“Our daily life is affected by being permanently online,” Krasnova explains. “How can we deal with this situation?” She is confronted with this question not only as a professor who sees her students’ attention dwindling. As a mother, she faces a dilemma whenever her smartphone rings while she is reading a bedtime story. “I feel the urge to read and answer e-mails immediately,” she says about the pressure that the smartphone exerts on her. Most people feel the same way; whenever the smartphone grabs our attention, we rarely remain focused on our counterpart.

Hardly anyone can escape the lure of smartphones

To investigate the extent and consequences of this phenomenon, Krasnova, who heads the Chair of Business Informatics, Social Media and Data Science, and her team began studying the smartphone behavior of students in big lectures. How much time do they spend on the smartphone during the lecture? How does it affect their performance? The study results were surprising even for her; on average, students spent nearly 40 minutes of the lecture on the smartphone, not on the subject matter. A subsequent survey showed that many students were able to estimate how long they were surfing or chatting in the lecture hall. “The students are relatively well aware of this,” emphasizes Krasnova. At the same time, she observed that those who were distracted were less able to digest the subject matter covered in the lecture.
In another study, the researchers left the academic world and dived into colorful everyday life: a playground in Berlin. The investigations focused on parents and their children. The researchers wanted to know if parents who were together with small children on the playground could be distracted by their smartphones.
The scientists are currently evaluating the data, but they can already say that many parents spend a lot of time on the playground with their smartphones, while their children are digging in the sand or climbing on jungle gyms. “We're talking about really young children who are two, three or four years old,” Krasnova says. “That can be dangerous.”

New communication technologies raise many questions

For Krasnova, current research, which also includes phubbing in relationships, is only the beginning. At the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, which was recently founded in Berlin, she will focus on further questions about new communication technologies and their impact on society. Here, Krasnova heads up the research group “Digital Technologies and Well-being”. “Of course, smartphones and similar devices also have many positive aspects,” she says. Just one click gives us access to all kinds of information and can connect us with people who are important to us, and with people all over the world. “The smartphone even plays an enormous and very special role in the context of refugees,” explains Krasnova. Refugees stay in contact with their families with the help of these devices, and receive important online information about mandatory appointments with the authorities, or about language and training courses. In another research project, Krasnova therefore is also looking into how digital technologies affect integration.
“Nevertheless, we cannot forget the negative aspects,” Krasnova warns. Many users develop a full-blown smartphone addiction. The day starts and ends with a look at the display. In the time between, many barely last 30 minutes without looking at their device. “We are trying to understand why and how this addiction develops.”

Smartphone addiction involves mechanisms similar to gambling addiction

So why do we accept the snubbing of friends and relatives, missing the subject matter of lectures, and not devoting our full attention to our children? Krasnova describes these processes as follows: When we receive an interesting e-mail or a nice comment on Facebook, we are pleased. At the same time, however, we expect this pleasure to be repeated. Fearing to miss exactly this event, we check the smartphone every few minutes. “You're waiting for the reward, but you do not know when it will come.” Similar mechanisms are also at work in gambling addiction.
However, research on digital media, and its social potentials and risks, is still in its infancy. As a matter of fact, digital technologies are changing the way we communicate with long-term effects that remain unpredictable. “Here I see a social mission for our research,” says Krasnova. “It is a mass phenomenon that we cannot ignore.”



Prof. Hanna Krasnova studied Economics and Management Science at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. Since 2015, she has been Professor for Business Informatics, especially Social Media and Data Science at the University of Potsdam. Since 2017, she has been the principal investigator heading “Digital Technologies and Well-being” and “Digital Integration” research groups at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society.

The Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society investigates social changes occurring in response of digitalization and develops informed strategies for stakeholders in politics and industry. The Institute was opened in September 2017 and is coordinated by the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). The consortium includes the WZB and the University of Potsdam, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, the Berlin University of the Arts, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS). The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has funded the Institute with 50 million euros for the first five years. 


Text: Heike Kampe
Online gestellt: Alina Grünky
Kontakt zur Online-Redaktion: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de