The Tyranny of Digital Shopper Anxiety
Most of us know that the internet can be hugely distracting, but do we think about how much it plays on our emotions and anxieties - particularly at Christmas?
If you believe the news reports and marketing hype, the pre-Christmas season is one of dark Fridays and web-manic Mondays.
Until recently, Black Friday was to bricks-and-mortar stores what Cyber-Monday, is to their online counterparts. (Nowadays, more people do their shopping online across both days.)
Projections last week suggested that shoppers across the UK would spend £5.6 billion on sales related to both.
The good news is that going into the Christmas sales season, fewer Brits said they intended to engage with these sales-fests than did so last year. In 2018, 62 per cent of adults said they planned to do so; this year the figure was down to 42 per cent.
The change may be linked in part to the imminent general election. Still, the numbers of people involved and the amounts spent overall are still staggeringly high - especially when you consider how deliberate retailers have become in setting us up to binge-buy.
In 2013, British newspaper studies revealed that online retailers often jack up their prices just before the end of November. Then, predictably, they drop them again immediately after Christmas.
The Friday and Monday shopping peaks are manufactured. They are not new social norms that have appeared naturally. They reflect deliberate exercises in nudge marketing. They are designed, or at least manipulated, to use the power of human sociability to influechoice.
That may seem to give retailers too much credit. However, nudge marketing is so respected as a means of inspiring social change that even a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, read up on it.
For all its undoubted benefits, the internet operates as a conduit for and a mirror of human emotions. In some cases, it reinforces our emotions - particularly, at times, our anxieties.
Shopper anxiety is a case in point. Though it may not yet be recognised as a clinical psychological condition, for some Christmas shoppers the fear of not getting the right gift is very real; it heightens anxiety.
In an age of globalisation and a highly mobile population, many of us find the shape of our families and friendships shifting almost constantly. Fluidity is the disease of the age.
Urbanisation, combined with an increasing reliance on digital communications, has increased the effects of social isolation and loneliness for some people.
Several studies bear this out. It seems that, at least for sections of the population, the more digitally connected people are, the more isolated they feel. When mediated primarily via apps, relationships often become more transient and shallow - or, as psychologists express it, more horizontal than vertical.
This can make shopping a challenging, if not daunting, prospect. The question isn't any longer just 'What will I buy?' but 'For whom should I buy?'
Approaching Christmas, shopper anxiety is further affected by the timing of the purchase - everything must be in hand by December 25.
What difference would it make to a close adult friend or family member if they received a gift a day or two after Christmas? That's the problem, though. At Christmas, timing is everything.
This brand of anxiety feeds on the now infamous FOMO, the fear of missing out. It is also exacerbated by what someone called The Tyranny of the Amazing.
With every new toy and gadget on the market, the element of surprise becomes harder to maintain. Designers and manufacturers have to work that little bit harder to maintain any kind of Wow Factor.
Of course, with the Generation Z young adult, there's not much of that anyway, especially where technology is concerned. For those a little older, though, the delightful 'Amazing. How do they do that?' moment is still an important part of the gift-receiving experience.
The question for the giver becomes, 'How can I find something that still elicits that kind of response?'
Linked to shopper anxiety is debt anxiety. If we continue to move quickly toward a completely cashless society, levels of personal debt will surely increase.
For all their undoubted convenience, contactless payment systems encourage people to spend more with less forethought. Once we had to sign a receipt to use our cards. Then it was as simple as entering PINs - provided our data-overloaded memories could remember them.
Now, just a casual wave of a card is enough to remove hard-earned money from our accounts.
This favours the merchant; it is not always in the best interests of the consumer. Cash has weight and substance, which means we can readily see when we're running low. Digital coinage is a collection of 1s and 0s that most of us don't understand anyway, and certainly can't see.
The internet also feeds upon health anxiety. Ours is the age of take-home DNA kits.
Some of these services aim primarily at providing ancestry-mapping. Others promise information about possible future health risks. People buy them in the hope that by sending off a dab of their saliva, they might be able to forestall serious health conditions, including heart disease.
We also live in the era of in-clinic DNA ‘readings’, in which clients are offered advice on likely future health risks. These are marketed on the internet and appointments are often made online.
Whilst it is much easier today than it was even a decade ago to 'read' the DNA sequence for an individual, deciphering what the code means is by no means simple. Much is still unknown - for example, about the impact of certain combinations of proteins on the likely development of diseases.
A few years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that people may be making important life decisions based on fallible technology.
It is too early to start using DNA sequencing as an accurate means of predicting health problems.
Of course, there are hundreds of companies offering more familiar health services online, including those selling vitamins and natural remedies. The law requires that these sites offer no medical advice and customers usually have to agree that this was the case before they can buy.
Yet it's not hard to see how someone shopping online for a particular pill might also buy another product based on a promotion that says, 'Others who bought this product, also purchased...'
Online communities and companies also feed relationship anxiety. Studies suggest that young adults, particularly those in their twenties, often fear they're missing out whilst in a steady relationship.
One international study found that many young adults maintain their presence on dating sites even after they marry. Their motivation, they say, is to continue to make new friends. One wonders, though, how many are trying to keep their options open.
Some unscrupulous dating sites deliberately pitch their wares at married people, playing on their fear of missing out on potential future relationships.
A marriage, if it’s to be given half a chance of succeeding, has involved two partners who recognise that their options are now closed.
Information anxiety is also a feature of our use of the internet.
We are seeing exciting developments in the world of education, many of them driven by the internet. In just a few years, we've seen the internet move from being a predominantly data-exchange medium to a commercial enterprise and then, more recently, to a social medium.
In many ways, the latter is the most powerful development. We can expect to see the internet moving even more in that direction in the age of the ubiquitous Cloud.
Commerce is becoming more socially-based online, with the emergence of geofencing and social shopping.
One allows marketers to pitch products at people based upon their geographical location - and their online shopping preferences. The other allows someone to buy a product token on their mobile phone and send it to a friend's phone so that he/she can redeem it in a store.
Education will follow the same trend. We can expect to see learning, even formal education, becoming a more social endeavour. Social media will move from being a secondary education platform to more of a primary one.
Person-to-person (P2P) education has already taken off, with education entrepreneurs like Salman Khan offering thousands of high-quality video sessions on everything from biology to geography, history, maths and more.
Meanwhile, the movement toward mobile learning is gathering pace worldwide. The largest university in the world is Indira Gandhi Open University in India. It has two million students and 2300 study centres for its online student body.
At the same time, however, the power of the internet as a data-exchange presents important challenges to mental health. Conditions such as Communication Addiction Disorder are now recognised by psychiatrists as bonafide problems linked with internet use.
According to the University of Hong Kong, six per cent of the global population is affected by internet addiction.
Even among well-balanced people, internet-induced time starvation is a cause of anxiety. An estimated 20 per cent of British office workers are dealing with 50 emails per day from colleagues alone.
A great boon to business in many ways, our relationship with the internet often poses problems caused by distraction, shorter attention spans and increased mistakes brought on by multi-tasking.
Arguably, the modern internet ranks among the greatest of human achievements. Yet it is still a nascent technology. We've not yet finished with the digital revolution and its full impact is not yet known.
In the end, as with most things, human decisions will make the difference when it comes to how this exciting technology shapes our future.
We must be clear about one thing, though. The internet is not a technological entity insulated against human frailties and foibles. Our use of it both reflects our aspirations and potentially heightens our fears.
Watch Mal Fletcher's BBC interview on this subject here.