Technology
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Time to check your tech habits: What is working and what is hindering you?

Access to unlimited information at our fingertips but attention spans and capacity to retain information falling

The idea that the internet is negatively affecting our brains has been knocking around for a while. We have access to unlimited information at our fingertips, and yet our attention spans and capacity to retain information have been falling.

That may not strictly be the fault of the internet. New developments are always blamed for any potential ills in society, stretching back to ancient times. Greek philosopher Socrates thought that writing was inferior to memory and the spoken word; the printing press was another invention that was going to be key to the downfall of civilised society; and don’t even get us started on TV.

So it’s not inevitable that the internet will affect our brainpower. But it’s hard to argue that technology isn’t making us increasingly distracted. Take a look around you next time you are out in public. How many people are so busy with their smartphones that they aren’t noticing what is going on around them? When you are working, how often are you distracted by the numerous emails and messages that land in your inbox? Is checking your phone a reflex action when you are bored or, like most of us, just procrastinating?

If technology has become more of a hindrance than a help,it might be time to walk things back a little and get your technology use in check.

It seems strange, but tech can also help us beat it. Apple’s newest version of iOS includes the option to set several “focus” modes that will cut down on the distractions but allow important or relevant notifications through. For example, Do Not Disturb will silence all notifications and apps, but a customisable Work focus mode will allow notifications from important people and apps, and lets people know you have notifications silenced. You can add focus modes for fitness, reading, mindfulness, driving or gaming, or even add one of your own.

On Android, the Digital Wellbeing settings allow you to customise focus modes to cut out notifications from distracting apps. You can also set it to turn on automatically, for example at a certain time of day when you know you need to work uninterrupted.

There are also apps to help you focus on tasks for short periods of time without interruption. The Bear Focus Timer, for example, uses the pomodoro technique, which breaks the work into intervals, with a short break in between.

You open the app, place your phone screen down and the app will play white noise such as campfire, a stream, rainfall or night sounds to help you focus until the time is up. It will then praise you for your good habits, giving you that nice boost of endorphins that keeps us hooked on our phones in the first place.

Take back control

Tech companies are pulling our strings, using our personal data as a way to target content and build fairly significant profiles of us to sell us more products and services.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are plenty of tools to help you protect your privacy, from ad tracking blockers to built-in controls on operating systems that prevent apps from tracking your movements online. Ghostery, for example, offers an extension for your desktop browser and a dedicated web browser for your smartphone that blocks many of the most common trackers. Web browser Brave will also help keep trackers out of your online business. And if you use iOS, the newer versions of the software force apps to ask for permission to track your activity, which you can easily reject. You may find you get hit with ads for toenail fungal treatments more than you’d like, but it’s a minor annoyance in the short term.

Dial down the doom

The past two years have been tough on everyone. We all thought the pandemic would be a distant memory and we would be celebrating a more normal Christmas in 2021. Even if you have managed to keep your spirits up, talk of Covid cases hitting 20,000 a day would be enough to make anyone’s faith slip.

You don’t have to bury your head in the sand; we aren’t ostriches. It is wise to take a break from the doom scrolling, however, whether that means putting away your devices, deleting your social media apps from your phone or just getting out of the house for a quick walk.

One fact about ostriches though: they don’t actually bury their head in the sand to avoid predators. It is thought that the mischaracterisation came from observers seeing the ostrich monitoring its eggs. So not ignoring, just keeping an eye on things.

Check your sources

If you are intent on keeping up with the latest news, it is wise to check your sources carefully.

A recent survey published by the Central Statistics Office found that more than 60 per cent of Irish internet users saw content online that they believed to be untrue or doubtful. Which makes us wonder what the remaining 30-plus per cent are reading, really.

Of those who had seen content they considered untrue or doubtful, some 64 per cent dug deeper and checked sources and information, or took part in discussions online or offline regarding the content. That was highest among the 20-44 age group, where 97 per cent sought further information.

The quality of those sources are key though. Seek out high quality sources that can be verified. That is more difficult than you might imagine, as it is not always clear when there is an agenda behind a particular story or analysis. For more tips on how to evaluate news sources, check out bemediasmart.ie

Be more cynical – when it matters

This year saw an explosion in scams aimed at phone users. Almost everyone has either had a call or knows someone who had a call claiming to be from a badly named government department. If you haven’t had one of those, you’ve had a scam text about a fake delivery and customs charges owing. Others have been targeted by scammers claiming to offer Covid-19 tests for a fee.

One of the more recent ones to hit the headlines is the WhatsApp scam. You might get a message on WhatsApp claiming to be from a friend or family member, on a new number because they’ve lost their phone. Fine, you think, it happens. Then the request for help comes; perhaps they’ve lost their wallet or been mugged and need you to send them some money. If your scam radar is bleeping right about now, you’d be right. Unfortunately, such cons are designed to tap into our human instinct to help, and when coupled with the urgency of the request, some people have fallen for it.

If you do get a similar message, contact the person on their old number to make sure it is no longer in their possession, or ask the new number to send a voice note to confirm their identity before you part with any money.

And if anyone asks you to send them a security code they “mistakenly” sent to your phone, don’t do it. That scam allows people to gain access to your WhatsApp account and send messages to your contacts claiming to be you, and inevitably, a request for money will follow.

Boost your security

This is one that should be on your list every year. We do more and more online every year and, as such, we should be guarding our accounts as much as possible.

Your technology can reveal a surprising amount about you. If someone has access to your online accounts, it allows them to build a picture of you and your life. The locations you visit regularly, for example, or your home address, where you bank, where you shop online, and what social media accounts you have.

That password you have been using for the past 10 years is probably floating around a cache of compromised credentials on the dark web. It’s time to rethink things.

If your accounts offer two factor authentication, implement it, and choose an authenticator app over simple text message authentication.

It may seem counterintuitive, but security experts recommend using a password manager to create random, unique passwords. All you have to do is secure the software with a single strong password, and it will do the rest for you. Just make sure that password is as strong as possible, and not a reused one.

Pay for what you need

We collect subscriptions these days. From streaming music to video services and online fitness to digital magazines, gaming services and audio books. Now is a good time to take stock of what you are paying for and what you actually use. It may not seem like much when you sign up – the cost of a sandwich or two a month – but over the year it adds up, even more so when you realise that you haven’t opened the app in question in about six months. You can divert that money to a more useful cause.

If you have subscribed through the App Store on your phone, you will find the subscriptions in settings, select your iCloud ID and check under subscriptions. On Android, go to Settings> Passwords and Accounts and select your Google account. Scroll to Payments and Subscriptions to see your recurring payments.

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