Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Tuesday, WhatsApp announced new privacy features that will allow users to leave group chats without sending notifications to all members – and to control who sees when they are active on the app. These features are a reminder to all of us that we need to be more thoughtful about the ways in which we’re letting technology control our lives.
Ami Vora, the company’s vice president for product and design, said the changes were part of WhatsApp’s commitment to “building product features that empower people to have more control and privacy over their messages.”
That’s important, because many of us have been conditioned to provide – and expect – instantaneous responses when people message us on work or social apps, whether it be a prospective love interest, a boss on Slack or a friend on WhatsApp.
The fact that other users can often see when we’re online – and whether we’ve read their messages – on these apps certainly doesn’t help. When you know your boss knows you have seen their request, it’s pretty hard to let it just sit there and focus on something else – even if doing so would be healthier or more productive.
But if we want to actually get work done and do it well, we often need to unplug from these apps entirely. In a 2014 study, researchers at George Mason University found that dealing with interruptions doesn’t just make it take longer to complete a task – it also causes people to do work of lower quality. Students who were interrupted while writing essays ended up earning scores that were significantly lower than those who weren’t.
This makes sense, since in order to plan and execute complex tasks, we often need to concentrate and maintain a coherent train of thought. So, whether or not they realize it, we’d often perform better if we didn’t keep stopping to instantly respond to our colleagues.
And, outside of work, there’s more to life than endlessly messaging people. How are we supposed to savor a meal or safely care for our kids if we’re responding to a steady stream of messages from our co-workers, friends and family? The simple answer is that we can’t. A different 2014 paper found that as cellphone networks improved in quality, enabling the use of smartphones in different parts of the country, visits by young children to emergency rooms increased in those areas. It isn’t hard to imagine that this could be because their caregivers were busy texting instead of watching them on the playground.
Yet many of the products designed by tech companies, even as they increase our anxiety and decrease our productivity and overall wellness, do have the effect of keeping us tethered to our computers and phones.
When you see that a senior manager is typing you back on Slack, or the thought bubbles on your phone alert you that a love interest is tapping out a text, of course you’ll sit there glued to your screen in anticipation of their message. And with many people working from home, responding instantly – at all hours – has become a way some people try to prove to their colleagues that they’re working hard.
What can be even worse in our culture in which instantaneous responses have become the norm is knowing that someone has seen a message and isn’t responding to you. It can feel like you’re being deliberately ignored, even if the person is simply just wrapped up in something else.
So the option to disable some of these creepy tools that allow people to know when you’re online and have received their messages – or whether you’re participating in a group chat – is a welcome development. But it’s up to all of us to actually use them. We need to educate ourselves about what privacy options are available to us on different social networks and then take the time to activate them. And, ultimately, we need to think through whether we really want to cede control of our time to technology and other people. We should consider prioritizing the things we want to do, rather than giving precedence to the messages at the top of our apps.
If we all start taking advantage of these tools and changing the ways in which we react to incoming messages, we can ultimately change our culture of endless messaging. Then one day our bosses might be happy not to receive instant responses from us.