People are growing weary of the constant stream of alerts on their phones and struggling to make it through a meal without checking their screens. They’re worried about being tracked. They have tech neck, and it hurts.
As digital culture moves out of its honeymoon phase, a backlash industry has sprung up, with coaches to help people break up with their devices, digital detox camps and tech diets. Mindful of the new mindfulness, Apple and Google have incorporated screen time monitors into their products.
A new study that tracked how 2,444 Americans used their mobile devices over 14 months backs up the general sense of tech fatigue. It found that 64% of participants scaled back their app use during the time they were tracked, spending four hours a day on apps, down from five at the start of the study.
A retreat from mobile devices could have “large implications for marketers and for the digital business models that rely on capturing attention,” wrote Renee Cassard, the chief audience officer at the media agency Hearts & Science, which commissioned the report.
“Less time spent with mobile devices means fewer chances to reach consumers on these devices, increasing the cost of mobile advertising in the near term and forcing marketers to rethink where and how they spend advertising dollars in the long term,” Cassard wrote in the new study.
Companies spent $99 billion on ads meant for smaller screens last year, more than television and print combined, according to research firm eMarketer. Banners pop up over articles in news apps. Videos play in the corner of cooking apps.
But investment in digital ads, although sizable, showed “a noticeable slowdown” last year after years of rapid growth, according to ad buying and media intelligence firm Magna.
Some companies have addressed the growing uneasiness with digital overload the best way they know how: through advertising.
Audible has a British commercial that shows a woman scrolling through her smartphone being bombarded by everything from cat memes to an avatar of a bare-chested male suitor. The chaos disappears when she selects Audible.
Other companies — Miller Lite, Stella Artois, Pringles and Grey Goose Vodka among them — have picked up on the desire for digital detox, making commercials meant to convey the notion that they know just how you feel. Some of the brands with the most pointedly anti-tech ads are the tech companies themselves, which use messages about the isolation and distraction ushered in by tech devices to promote … more tech devices.
While companies have acknowledged through such ads that something has gone awry in the relationship between humans and their ever-present devices, some media analysts say it’s doubtful that the huge amount of money spent on ads for the small screen will decrease in the years to come.
Mobile ads will continue to proliferate, especially as apps become easier to use, said Jim Misener, president of the creative agency 50,000feet in Chicago. But he acknowledged “a bit of a pullback” from people who are concerned about privacy and security.
“For marketers, there’s a tension between the recognition of those needs, and the need to address demands for personalized, customized experiences,” he said.
“You want to build awareness while decreasing annoyance.”