Radical's Head of Creative Technology Eve Conboy asks the question that's on everyone's lips

Moral panics are a common historical thread through our adoption of new technologies. Electrification of domestic homes was met with outrage and fear when it was first proposed, television was of course the worst thing to happen to the world according to some naysayers in the early ‘60s, and over the years, everything from video games to home taping have been subject to media finger pointing and parental concern.

So now, 10 years after the launch of the iPhone, it’s surely time for people to question their mobile phone use. In the past month, an entire issue of weekly women’s magazine Grazia and a BBC One Show campaign have both questioned our digital dependence. They call on us to “switch-off”, “detox”, “get unplugged” and even “join the revolution”. Too much screen time is ruining our relationships, family life, our sense of self, our sleep and our sex lives. digital detox is the new diet we should all be trying.

Are we right to be panicked about our levels of screen time and mobile phone use?

At the moment, science says we should be cautious. Addiction is a very strong word, and perhaps not the right one to use in this case, but smartphone use has certainly become a strongly ingrained habit for most users. Witness a teenager denied WiFi access for a day and you will know the huge impact of this need. Is that an addiction, similar to drugs, gambling or alcohol? Psychologists are still debating this question, and of course different personality types can be more prone to addictive behaviours than others, so the answer will always be complicated.

So what does this all mean for advertising?

A recent campaign by ex-Google product manager Tristan Harris pushed tech companies to take more responsibility for how they design interactions on their platforms; and called on designers and businesses to make technology that helps us to healthily manage our tech use. Called Time Well Spent, the campaign’s proposition is that ‘technology is hijacking our minds’ and that the public, academic research, policy makers and business need to get behind a movement to make the internet; and all of its associated platforms, content, advertising messages and tools, more aware of the power they wield.

Put simply, our use of the internet needs to mature at both an individual and an organisational level. Here are some things that brands and marketers can consider straight away to make sure your message is not caught up in the glut of negativity – or one of those brands that people cut off as part of their switch-off.

Quality over quantity with content

At Radical, we ask ourselves honestly, “Why would someone give a shit about this?”, when we are talking about ideas for our clients. If no-one in the room can rationally answer that question, the idea is binned. In the rush to ‘be there’ on social channels, too many brands publish too much bland, internally focused, irrelevant content. Radical say content should be made for a world with a skip button, so assume that people will not pay attention – unless you give them a reason to.

A great example is our work for Aer Lingus, which appeared only on social channels. It got the whole country talking, and crying. Most importantly, it was effective, with post campaign research telling us 64% of Ryanair customers said they were ‘more likely to fly with Aer Lingus’ and four out of five who watched the video viewed Aer Lingus as a brand that cares about Irish people.

Switching off is an insight, and a problem to solve

The call for a more positive, enabling internet is a huge opportunity for brands. Think of the award winning REI ‘Opt Outside’ campaign as an example of a brand taking a cultural negative – a growing obsession with shopping on Black Friday – and turning it on its head to create a campaign that really resonated with people, and drove a massive increase in sales.

Radical’s recent campaign for Toyota – #FaceItDown – demonstrates that brands can play an incredibly important role in making our use of tech work for positive outcomes. And a quick scan of  #techforgood on Twitter shows a number of cases of brands collaborating with technology companies to produce ideas that make the world better. We can use the psychology of technology for positive outcomes, not just negative.

Integrated media planning and targeting

Finally, we will need to play close attention to our digital media planning and targeting. Not only to ensure they are well integrated with offline media channels, but to monitor that placements are appropriate and relevant to the target audience, and that users are not seeing the same message too frequently across different channels. An expert level knowledge of google analytics and data analysis, audience targeting, optimisation and attribution will be required to steer brands through the coming shifts in attitudes. Integrating this media planning with an innate understanding of a platform’s usage conventions, the actual message being put out, and how to tailor this message specifically for the platform, means a joined up approach between creative and media is going to become even more essential than it is now. A fire and forget approach will no longer cut it.

So, it looks like the internet is about to go through some big changes, as we all evaluate the massive impact smartphones have had on the last 10 years of our lives.  Brands can’t bury their heads in the sand, but instead should embrace the opportunities this shift presents; to be more useful, to be more positive, to be more savvy with planning and targeting across channels. Otherwise, the risk is being swept up in the big switch off