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Marketers have a responsibility to cure the smartphone epidemic

By Mark Freeman, managing partner



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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February 18, 2020 | 5 min read

We are deep in the middle of a digital addiction epidemic. If you’re on public transport right now, or on a busy street, look around and you’ll see the proof. How are you reading this? Are you an addict yourself?

Movement consider ways in which marketers can control digital addiction among consumers.

Movement consider ways in which marketers can control digital addiction among consumers.

This addiction is not benign. It turns out that all this smartphone use isn’t so great for us. Smartphones make us feel worse. Smartphones feed anxiety, loneliness and depression. Smartphones thrive on an ecosystem that is thirsty for your attention and values getting you hooked on its products, according to The Guardian.

And, as digital marketers, we are in an industry that plays an active role in making people’s lives worse.

The attention economy’s requirement of the smartphone to drive us to distraction is robbing us of some of the fundamentals of well-being: attentiveness; presentness; and interpersonal engagement.

As smartphone usage has risen, the world’s mental health has got worse. There has been a decline in global happiness. A rise in depression and other issues. The concept of digital detox/sabbath/sabbatical has sneaked into our lexicon. Screen time minutes have been dubbed “the new calories”.

It is now the human responsibility of marketers to question whether what we are creating for brands is adding to this problem, and what a brand’s role is in improving the lives of consumer audiences by encouraging more time away from the screen.

Still, we can all go further here. Moving forward, not only should we ask these questions, we should also look to minimise as much screen-time as possible for users, allowing audiences to live with their heads in the real world again, and do our part to help manage the evolutionary leap that, as a species, we weren’t quite ready for.

We must continue to be pro-digital. But, due to the wellbeing that we know it brings, we must also be pro-attention.

A first step for agencies to achieve this is to always provide, in response to a brief, or when developing an experience or a product, a screen-minimal option. If we strip back a user’s requirements to their core motivation, how much heads-down screen-time do they really need? And what other technologies can we use to look to reduce it?

This isn’t bad news for digitally-focused creative agencies (like us here at Movement). New technologies that can help move consumer attention upwards will bring new opportunities. We are at the dawn of the A.I. era, with its promise of contextual recognition and response. There is a rising usage of voice/audio platforms like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, of mass adoption of smart speakers around the home and a constant hum of audio content in the form of streaming services and podcasts. Thanks to our TVs, our cars, our appliances, there will be more screens around the home to shoulder the burden the smartphone currently holds in successfully pulling our attention downwards. They can help us provide a better balance.

It is a landscape that will birth smarter environments controlled mostly by voice, allowing us to serve up the information, the entertainment, the connections that we require in a way that allows us turn our attention back to marvel at the world around us… its people, its nature and its joys, wherever we want to find them. The agencies and brands that will succeed in the future will be those who help people best appreciate this.

The opportunity to reduce heads-down screen-time is a utopian vision worth pursuing. A more mindful, considered approach to technology by people and organisations can, at a macro level, make for a happier humankind. And also, at a micro level, continue to create valuable, useful things that make people’s lives better in the moment, like, among the many examples out there, these personalised directions at airports to guide you to your gate.

If our species can evolve our use of digital to move beyond the concept of ‘always on’ and allow us to be ‘always attentive’, technology may yet save us from ourselves.

Mark Freeman, creative partner at Movement.


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