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Meaning and mindfulness in the smartphone era: Dr Daan le Roux
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 26/11/2020

​​He's not some kind of neo-Luddite who is unnecessarily critical of new technology. He just wants to ensure that people consciously weigh up the pros and cons of screen technology, and still lead meaningful lives in their use of it. He hopes people can use it pro-learning, pro-wellness, pro-innovative thinking and pro-creativity. So says Dr Daan le Roux of the Department of Information Science, who by the nature of his research on how young people's attachment to their smartphones can change their attention span and study abilities, can substantiate his opinion on more than just idle talk.

"If technology supports a meaningful life, then I'm all for it. However, there is nothing that frustrates me as much as blind techno-optimism that simply sees it as 'better' and 'more'. It's naive and short-sighted. We need a nuanced, balanced, empirically based idea of our actual use of technology," he sets out during a screen-to-screen interview.

"Yes, it's true that if I have Google Maps on my phone, I can find my way around more easily. And yes, because I have email on my phone, I can read messages at nine in the evening before I go to bed at night. The question, however, is if it is actually wise to do so. I am interested in the influence that technology has on our general well-being."

Thanks to his undergraduate studies in computer science and visual design at the University of Pretoria in the early 2000s, Dr le Roux received a valuable technical grounding. After gaining practical experience in Britain, he returned to South Africa in 2007 to start lecturing at SU's Department of Information Science. It's from the very department that he received his masters degree and PhD (in 2013) in Socio-Informatics under the guidance of influential voices such as Prof Johann Kinghorn and the late Prof. Hans Müller.

In 2014, Dr le Roux introduced a new honours level programme, the BComHons in Information Systems Management, which by 2016 produced its first graduates.

Since then, Dr le Roux and the members of the Technology and Cognition Research Group have carved out a niche for themselves in an area in which few research voices emanating from Africa are yet heard. The group, founded in 2013, has become a leader in South Africa and Africa on research about how cell phone use affects student performance and well-being.

He admits that there are still not one definitive answer about what being able to do almost anything on one's phone (and many tasks at the same time, to boot) and permanent connectivity does to people's cognitive patterns, behaviour and attention span.

"The field is still very much a new-born baby. It started expanding very quickly since the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Over the past decade, the use of smartphones has exploded. It's a mere blink of an eye in the evolution of a species. "

Recently, his group pointed out that people who are constantly performing different tasks simultaneously on their phones, also tend to spread their attention more widely. This can hinder their ability to perform one specific task that needs specific focus (such as studying for a test), and can make them easily distracting. In the process it can hamper their ability to study effectively and with the necessary concentration.

"Our studies further show that people who go about their digital use consciously are able to more easily regulate their behaviour and achieve set goals."

He believes that the setting of boundaries, or so-called "boundary management", must become some form of mantra when it comes to the use of digital and especially social media.

One of his former students, and nowadays a colleague, Dr Douglas Parry, recently tested a specific cell phone application and other interventions on students to see if it helps them to self-regulate their screen usage and go about their workday in a more focused manner.

His group is currently researching, among other things, the varied influence that personality has on people's online patterns.

"Someone who tends to be a natural ruminator, in other words who tends to cyclically think things through over and over again, will have more difficulty psychologically and cognitively to disconnect from their online life. That's just how it is. In turn, people who are prone to FOMO will struggle to effectively regulate their constant monitoring of online updates. "

"But research on this is still ongoing ..."

A joint research project between his group and universities in Botswana and Namibia showed that "the numbers are surprisingly comparable" when it comes to the media usage patterns and the psychological attachment to the internet of students in the three African countries.

"Even though they are from different backgrounds and contexts in real life, there are surprisingly many similarities in their usage patterns and the amount of time they spend on specific social media platforms. In the process it necessarily creates a degree of shared understanding of popular culture as determined by the so-called global village."

In previous years, Dr le Roux was involved in studies about the technical side of Information Science. He has also done some research on the influence that robots and automated systems could have on the workforce.

"The way in which digital media has diversified over the last two decades means that within Information Science there is now a variety of research opportunities and professional fields. As technology becomes a part of every aspect of our lives, new research questions are constantly emerging. There is just too little time to answer each one."

“Your value as a researcher lies in your ability to think critically and apply methodology to solve research problems. That skills set is transferable from one problem to another, as long as you remain within a domain to some extent," he explains.

He does not regret the technical grounding that his undergraduate years provided him.

"It helps to understand what's going on inside the 'black box' of computers and servers. The better your knowledge about it, the better you can write philosophically accurately about it, " reckons Dr le Roux, who has a strong interest in philosophy and economics and loves writing.

The question of what a truly meaningful life really is also makes him reflect on his own screen usage patterns, and how much time he spends reading arguments on Twitter, for example.

He is concerned about how the amount of time people spend in an online world manipulates their being and choices about what they consider to be a meaningful life.

"It is a centuries-old question that remains interesting and is repeated every time a new wave of technology is introduced. It's a big question. It's nice to work on big questions."

He adds: "There is a lot of meaning in the creative process behind creating something. Our phones are however increasingly sending us in the direction of consumption, rather than production. It is, of course, a double-edged sword. If you want to look at it from a purely technical-optimistic angle, the creative possibilities that an application like Tik Tok unlocks because there's a camera in your phone are endless. In reality however, only a very small proportion of users create content, while the vast majority only passively consume."

"I think, for example, that the ability to exercise cognitive control, therefore, to control your attention and deliberately choose to focus on something, is a very important component of a meaningful life."

Much of his group's research is about the possibility that technology may paralyze or wheedle down that ability.

His field of research not only holds purely academic benefits, he laughingly admits: “Nowadays it is so much easier to explain to people around a braai fire what I work on. Everyone can relate; they understand what I am talking about and recognize the symptoms in themselves and their children."


For the next few weeks, we will introduce you to some of SU`s researchers whose work is featured in the latest edition of Research at Stellenbosch University.