ICT in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master

Technology in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master - One of the fundamental needs of humans, as social animals, is the need to have social connections and interactions with fellow humans. Communication and information technology has certainly made this process easier but what happens when they become a substitute instead of a catalyst? Professor Jan Ondrus, ESSEC Asia Pacific, studies the impact of information and communication technology on social reclusiveness.

One of the fundamental needs of humans as social animals is the need to have social connections and interactions with fellow humans. Information and Communication Technologies have certainly made this process easier but what happens when they become a substitute instead of a catalyst? Professor Jan Ondrus, ESSEC Asia Pacific, studies the impact of information and communication technology on social reclusiveness.

ICT in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master by CoBS Editor Pavan Jambai. Related research: Felix Ter Chian Tan, Jan Ondrus Takahiro Kato, and Barney Tan, “Digital Transformation and the Socially Reclusive: A Study of ICT and the Hikikomori in Japan“, Proceedings of the 24nd Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems (PACIS 2020), Dubai, UAE, 20-24 June, 2020.

Technology: Heaven or Hell

Imagine a man going to sleep in the year 1600 and waking up in the year 1800. He would find the world to be different, but he could well adapt to it quite easily. Now imagine the same person going to sleep in the year 1800 and waking up today. He would most probably imagine that he had woken up in heaven – or perhaps hell.

In the past 200 years, there have been tremendous advancements in science. We discovered atoms, we broke down atoms to discover protons and electrons, and now we are at a point where we are breaking down electrons to realize that they are a great source of energy.

For the common man, no branch of science has helped him more than Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). However, just like fire, technology is a good servant but a bad master. Moreover, researchers have demonstrated the negative effects of technostress, the pervasive, and near-continual use of organizational IT systems on people’s health concretely.

With irrefutable and inevitable influence on the human population, ICT requires a deeper understanding in various settings. Unfortunately, however, the study of ICT has often been restricted to narrow settings of organizations and safe environments. And although conclusions have invariably recommended controlling the pervasive use of ICT in organizations, it is imperative to study its effects on a societal level.

A Modern-Day Paradox

Our modern-day paradox is that in an increasingly connected world, people are becoming increasingly disconnected. While people are connected to other people living thousands of miles away in a different part of the world, they are frequently disconnected from the person sitting next to them – and to reality.

An extension of the paradox could be framed as a question: Is this a victory for information and communication technology or a failure for humans as a society? For the impact of ICT has been so strong that there have been behavioral changes across generations, from grandparents to grandchildren.

Technology, as opposed to facilitating human interactions and sharing, has replaced them entirely. Social communications have considerably shifted from direct to indirect contacts such as personal computers and mobile phones. New types of psychiatric or behavioral disorders, such as Internet addiction, have emerged as a direct consequence of ICTs.

ICT in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master. One of the fundamental needs of humans, as social animals, is the need to have social connections and interactions with fellow humans. Communication and information technology has certainly made this process easier but what happens when they become a substitute instead of a catalyst? Professor Jan Ondrus, ESSEC Asia Pacific, studies the impact of information and communication technology on social reclusiveness.

Hikikomori and ICT

Hikikomori in Japan is an emerging psychiatric diagnosis and characterizes those afflicted as people who have not left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months. The Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry estimates that 1.55 million people are on the verge of becoming Hikikomori.

There is strong evidence about the correlation between the use of ICT and the occurrence of Hikikomori, at least in Japan. This increasingly pervasive social withdrawal phenomenon negatively impacts not only the affected individual’s mental health but also population-level education and workforce issues.

Other than having a specific name for the phenomenon, this is not a problem localized to Japan. Solid media sources including the BBC, The New York Times, National Geographic, and GQ suggest it is the isolating role of technology which contributes to the rise in the number of people across the world experiencing similar reclusive Hikikomori conditions.

It might not be unimaginable to conceive this as a worldwide problem. While creating a boundaryless digital world, we have placed more and more people inside an imagined physical boundary. And as we are still overcoming the COVID pandemic, we might not be far from the next one – which can very well be psychological.

ICT in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master - One of the fundamental needs of humans, as social animals, is the need to have social connections and interactions with fellow humans. Information and Communication technology has certainly made this process easier but what happens when they become a substitute instead of a catalyst? Professor Jan Ondrus, ESSEC Asia Pacific, studies the impact of information and communication technology on social seclusion.

Fighting fire with fire

Extending on the paradoxical nature of ICT, it is interesting to note that the solution to the problems caused by ICT can indeed be solved by the proper use of ICT itself. As the saying goes, we must fight fire with fire.

According to a leading Hikikomori researcher, one of the main problems associated with social reclusiveness is that diagnostic criteria have not only failed to keep up with the speed of social change but more importantly they may be unable to do so.

IT can serve as a conduit for knowledge of the phenomenon and dispense relevant mental health information, which can be expected to contribute to an emergent and interdependent network of organizations providing therapeutic strategies and services for Hikikomori and families.

There is also an organizational problem with the need for various intermediaries to define and evolve their own roles to benefit the socially reclusive community and related stakeholders. In this regard, ICT can aid in identifying complementary organizations and specific configurations associated with the rehabilitation of the socially reclusive.

Finally, ICT – through different means such as social media and games – can alleviate the effects of social reclusiveness and encourage those people to gain a sense of belonging in society. Games such as Pokemon GO which requires people to venture out into the exterior environment in order to progress have been credited with helping socially reclusive people to a great extent.

Ending of the pandemic(s), or Beginning?

It is a saddening fact that sometimes young people in our society think that it normal to lead a socially reclusive life. In these times of rapid digital transformation, it may be difficult to distinguish between what is normal and what represents the start of a wide range of disorders, including depression, Internet addiction, or Hikikomori.

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with its various other complications, has increased our dependence on ICT to connect and share. And with some experts predicting that there might be more pandemics in the future, we must make a conscious effort to limit the usage of technologies and rather forge strong and physical social connections.

Recognition of mental health as being just as important as physical health is a crucial step towards a more socially connected society. We are still not completely healed from the biological COVID-19 pandemic. The thoughts of a psychological pandemic spreading loneliness and social reclusiveness are indeed terrifying. Are we approaching such a pandemic or are we already in the first wave?

Professor Jan Ondrus, ESSEC Asia-Pacific with Technology in Social Connections: Good servant, bad master
Jan Ondrus

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