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Digital Amnesia: How Much Do You Ask Of Your Digital Device?

We ask a lot of our digital devices, and treat them like an extension of ourselves, so perhaps it is time to show them the same level of care. We may rely on our memories, but our memories also rely on us.

Imagine you've just been told you've won a new car. Who would you call?

The answer is nobody - unless your smartphone is to-hand. Not because we don't want to, but because we simply don't remember people's contact numbers anymore. They are all stored in our smartphones, available instantly with a single click alongside photos and videos, birthday reminders and plans with friends and family. All there - until something goes wrong.

A new study we conducted reveals the extent to which we now rely on connected, digital devices to remember important facts for us. And having offloaded responsibility for their recall to a device, we forget them. Scientists tell us that this is a natural adaptive response, not a reflection of diminishing brain capability. In fact, it is remarkable how readily we can recall, sometimes decades later, things we once had to learn off by heart.

For example, the majority of connected consumers in the UK can't recall critical phone numbers from memory, including those of their children (71%), children's schools (87%), place of work (57%) and partner (49%). However, half (47%) could recall instantly their home phone numbers when aged 10 and 15.

We call this phenomenon 'Digital Amnesia', the experience of forgetting information that you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.

The experience of reliability

According to Dr Kathryn Mills from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, who reviewed and contributed to our report, this reliance on digital devices, and the trust we place in them, can resemble a human relationship. The feelings are established in the same way - through repeated positive experience, in this case the experience of reliability.

Of course, phone numbers and other contact details are not the only things stored on a connected device that we want and need to recall. Just think of all the pictures and video clips. Their very presence on our devices often reflects their significance as memories. By being accessible at all times, their status as top memories can become accentuated too.

According to Dr Maria Wimber from the University of Birmingham, who also provided insight on our study, pictures can dictate which aspects of our past we remember. The more often people remember the same events - by looking at the same pictures on their phones, for example - the more likely they are to forget related memories not captured in pictures.

In short, our digital devices are a portable capsule of the memories and people that matter most to us and which help us to define who we are. You'd think that was something worth protecting. But that's where you'd be wrong.

The risk of reliability

Our trust in these devices is so high, or perhaps our sense of vulnerability so low, that many of us fail to adequately protect our information with IT security. Our study found just a quarter of respondents installs extra IT security on their smartphone (27%) or tablet (24%) and 22% don't protect any of their devices with additional security.

Yet we know how we would feel if we lost these memories. The study found that the loss or compromise of data stored on digital devices, and smartphones in particular, would cause immense distress. Four in ten women (44%) and almost the same number of 16 to 24 year-olds (40%) would be overwhelmed by sadness since they have memories stored on their devices that they believe they might never get back. One in four women (25%) and 38% of younger respondents would panic as their devices are the only place they store images and contact information.

Our study found that Digital Amnesia is a growing trend among consumers of all ages, not just younger digital natives - and we need to better understand the direction and long term implications of this trend in order to protect the information we no longer store in our minds. Connected devices enrich our lives but in some ways it's their very reliability that makes them a risk. Many people underestimate just how exposed their externally-stored memories can be, rarely thinking about the need to protect them with IT security.

We ask a lot of our digital devices, and treat them like an extension of ourselves, so perhaps it is time to show them the same level of care. We may rely on our memories, but our memories also rely on us.

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