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Technology 26 Oct 2018

The cyber-stress plague spreads worldwide

Some 75 percent of the world’s population  —77 percent in the case of Spain— feels overwhelmed by the constant buzz of information that marks digital life.

Everyone knows that  feeling of unease. Buzzing, a beep or nice melody that distracts you from  whatever you’re doing at the moment. That feared notification: a Twitter  ‘like’, an incoming email or a personal message on WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook…  On top of these endless interruptions, is the fear of data theft, the scary headlines  on how technology is used to increasingly infiltrate our privacy.

This constant bombardment of notifications has an impact on our health that has been denominated as cyber-stress and it’s taking its toll on a very high percentage of the population. A recent study by the cybersecurity company Kasperksy Labs carried out in the United States, Canada and Spain shows that a large part of the population admits having suffered from this type of stress as a result of the constant connectivity imposed by the digital way of life. In Spain, 77 percent of those canvassed admitted feeling affected by this. The figure is very similar on a global basis at 75 percent.

Pedro García-Vilacaña Cibeles-Gómez (Madrid, 1973), sales director at Kaspersky Labs Iberia, says the plague is extending its reach. “The reality is that the number of applications and services we have to use on a daily basis, usually through the mobile, keeps increasing. This means that every few seconds we get a notification. And since this tests our ability to assimilate information you get what is known as cyber-stress”.

Although cyber-stress is a widespread phenomenon it’s not homogenous. Demographics mark the degree to which it impacts people. For example, the Kaspersky study concludes that users between the age of 16 and 24 suffer double the amount of stress than those aged 55 because of all the passwords that have to be retained for different applications.  Young people also have the additional feature of being hooked to the immediacy of digital life. They are more image conscious, always on the look-out for likes, need external approval and often related to physical appearance through social networks such Instagram.

The psychologist Heidi Hannah,  who is executive director of the American Institute of Stress and who collaborated in the study, assesses the long-term impact on health of cyberstress. The feeling of insecurity, the lack of control and the inability to keep up with the pace of change in a society that is constantly connected are inherent features of the digital way of life, she says. Technological advances offer us an incredible opportunity but they can rapidly cause people to feel lost – and stressed – in this new world, she adds.

Although the field is relatively new, dozens of articles on the subject appear in the research literature  as shown by a quick search of aggregators such as Google Scholar. Paradoxically, it is technology itself that comes to the rescue in what is eminently a technological problem. Studies for example by the researcher Ignacio Andrés Menares Jiménez, an engineer at the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Chile, use deep learning and neural networks as cyber-stress divining rods. His extensive research involves formulating a  reaction measurement system for notifications that takes into account the type of digital user; that is, his/her level of addiction to technology.

At the same time, the citizens of some countries have taken a stand against the obligation of being constantly invaded by the digital world. On the 1st of January 2017, legislation came into effect that marked a victory for the French people in the shape of the acknowledgement of a new right: the right to disconnect outside working hours . The new law obliges companies from the start of 2017 to grant this right to disconnect in the shape of concrete issues such as not having to look at work emails outside working hours. The  European Union is considering applying the French model to the whole bloc and countries such as the Philippines have approved similar legislation.

To combat this negative emotion, experts recommend common sense: “On a personal level, I can say that something as simple as disabling certain types of notifications or setting hours of use has worked for me. It’s something as basic as relearning to enjoy what you’re doing in the moment without being so tied to the mobile, “explains García-Vilacaña.  Putting this into practice in the heat of a bombardment of messages of course requires willpower.

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