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New tool sheds light on how digital technologies are breaking down traditional life boundaries

A new online tool has been developed by UK university researchers to help people to understand how technology is affecting their lives.

The proliferation of digital technologies – such as smart phones, email, social networking – has fundamentally changed our relationships with work, family life and socialising with friends and colleagues. Modern communication devices and applications enable us to be always connected and allow us to work wherever and whenever we want. However, it is increasingly obvious that these technologies are blurring the traditional boundaries that used to separate the different parts of many people’s lives.

The Digital Brain Switch project, led by researchers at Lancaster University, studied the changing nature of how people were living, including their work-life balance, and in particular how people switch rapidly between different work-life roles – parent, spouse, friend, co-worker, manager, and employee. And these switches can be very rapid – one minute, we might check in with our friends on Facebook, the next we switch to work email, a minute later we go to Twitter, LinkedIn or look at our contacts’ latest snaps on Instagram.

The project team developed a web-based self-tracking tool – MyLifeRocket – which focuses on lifestyle habits and wellbeing. It enables people to report their behaviour, thoughts and mood while using technologies. The system empowers people to create their own experiments and manually track aspects of their life in order to assess the effectiveness of small changes to their routines. For example, a user can run an experiment to see if their sleep patterns improve if they stop checking emails after 10pm.

Professor Jon Whittle, of Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, and lead researcher on the project, said: “Digital technologies are revolutionising how many of us live, though they are also blurring the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives.

“This study contributes to a critical understanding of how we manage switches between our life roles, and the part played by modern communication technologies.

“We have developed a tool to help people better understand how technology is affecting their routines. This tool empowers them to discover what works best for them as our routines and habits are all unique.”

MyLifeRocket also incorporates social networking features which allow friends to join experiments, as well as share and discuss their experience.

A study of more than 50 users showed that the tool can help people to realise how small lifestyle changes can improve their management of technology.

Digital Brain Switch was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which brought together computer science and social science. It was a collaboration between Lancaster University; The Open University; Royal Holloway, University of London; and University of Kent.

Tue 13 October 2015