By Professor Martin P Fritze from the University of Cologne.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? I bet it’s not brushing your teeth, drinking coffee, or even saying ‘Good Morning’ to the other person in bed, but rather picking up your phone and replying to messages, downloading the latest news, and ordering something online using various digital services; but why is this?
In an ever more digitalized society, we now see digital services on our phones as an extension of our personalities, and we rapidly connect to and are reluctant to give them up once we have obtained them.
Over the years, studies have highlighted how important the ownership of material products is for individuals, however more recently, there has been a call for understanding consumerism for digital markets, and why we are now so reliant on the apps on our phones.
Consumer research has exposed extensive evidence proving that people view their material possessions as part of themselves, and that the things we own help us to express who we are or aspire to be. However, in the digital age, our possessions clearly extend beyond the physical, and it has become apparent that we can now also become instantaneously attached to our digital services, using our apps to express, reinforce or reach a desired identity.
We retain functional apps on our phones such as banking apps, due to their practical purposes, keeping them ‘just in case’. This is because, as humans, we have a conditioned tendency to keep hold of our possessions once we own them. We place a higher value on a good that we own, or feel we own, than on an identical good that we don’t.
So, if we believe the app on our phone will fulfill the purpose of solving a task, and we acknowledge the possibility of being able to use the object in the future, we will hold on to it and will be reluctant to give it up once we have downloaded it.
However, beyond practicality, we also become attached to the apps on our phones not only due to their potentially useful functions, but also because they tie into our self-image, meaning we also use our apps to fulfill our emotional needs and desires.
We use apps to help us reach our personal goals, like becoming healthier, finding a relationship or to save more money, and when we attach some meaning to our apps, which exceeds purely functional dimensions, it allows us to express ourselves in ways we may not in everyday life. This means that we hold significant sentimental value towards them, viewing the digital services on our phones as an extension of our personalities, and as an access route to wider communities we may develop strong affiliations with.
With this in mind, given how important digital services such as Instagram, Tinder, and WeChat have become to people’s lives and how much time and emotional energy individuals spend using such services on a daily basis, it would be naïve to think that relying so heavily on our apps couldn’t lead to serious mental and physical health issues, due to their pervasive and addictive nature.
This along with the fact that downloading a new app, trying out a streaming service, or registering on a social media platform takes very little time to do, adds to the increasing inevitability and our likelihood that we will become psychologically dependent on our phones and tablets.
In an ever more digitalized society, we should constantly be aware of this. Of course, there are a vast amount of positive aspects that digital services bring to our lives; they help us to connect with our loved ones, meet new people, express ourselves in ways we feel most comfortable, as well as simply making life more entertaining.
However, we know that relying on apps on our phones can lead to mental and physical health issues, and the full extent of the effects that consumer behavior has on individual well-being in the digital age is not yet fully understood.
Further research on human attachment to digital services is rich in potential, and we have to gain a better understanding of people’s reliance on apps, especially when you consider the ongoing progress in artificial intelligence and the continuous rapid development of technology. For now, though, we should not be overemphasizing the importance that apps have on our self-worth and happiness, and we should aim for balance and moderation when incorporating digital services into our lives.