Just look at all the people hunched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or shop in malls. Observe people in line for coffee, or on a quick break from work, or just driving, or sitting in a restaurant. Visit an airport and you notice a sea of craned necks and dead eyes all staring at the screen on their smartphones. Clearly, we have long passed the days of looking up and around at our world to constantly looking down. I wonder what would have happened if the Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, were alive today and performed his experiment with humans and smartphones this time instead of using the dogs, which salivated every time the bell that they associated with food rang. Every time we would hear the sound of the ding, ping or buzz from our smartphone, I am sure, many of us would be itching to grab our phones.
According to a report published in The Economic Times in 2018, Indians spend roughly three hours a day on smartphones. Based on this report, India has surpassed the United States in mobile app downloads. In 2017, Indians downloaded 12.1 billion apps on their phones and tablets, compared to 11.3 billion in the US. Let’s also not forget that every single minute on the planet, YouTube users upload more than 400 hours of video and Tinder users swipe profiles over a million times. Each day, there are literally billions of Facebook feeds, Instagram posts and blogs that are accessible to us on our smartphone, which invites us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we may be doing.
Adam Alter, author of the best selling book, Irresistible, informs us that most people devote between one and four hours on their phones daily and others far longer across the globe. These people also spend an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones, which is more time than any other daily activity they engage in except sleeping. For Alter, most people have spent a staggering eleven years on their smartphone over an average lifetime. This dependence on our phones is so prevalent that researchers have now coined the term “nomophobia” (abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”) to describe the fear of being without a mobile phone.
In a recently published, highly popular oped piece in The New York Times: “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain,” the author Kevin Roose confesses to his own addiction with his smartphone. He writes: “I’ve been a heavy phone user for my entire adult life. But sometime last year, I crossed the invisible line into problem territory. My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching fulllength movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping. I tried various tricks to curb my usage, like deleting Twitter every weekend and installing app-blockers. But I always relapsed.”
The addiction that Roose is writing about has become a global phenomenon. Many have become so addicted to their smart phones that they find it almost impossible to cut the umbilical chord with them. According to Paul Atchley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Kansas, the reason for our inability to sever our ties with our phones is because we are essentially social organisms. This is why there’s nothing more compelling than social information, which activates a part of our brain that is hardwired to respond to unique sights and sounds. When we hear the sound of a beep, buzz, or a ping from our phone, there’s the implicit promise of new social information ~ it comes as a stimulus, which not only can’t be ignored but is also so powerful that it will lure us away from whatever activity we may be engaged in.
Although smartphones have made our lives easier, more fun and more social in important ways, there’s also a huge downside to this technology. All the major research findings indicate that when we are totally immersed in social media, we miss out on real conversations and are incapable of original and deep thinking.
According to many leading psychologists in the United States, heavy users of smart phones often cannot differentiate between various modes of communication and the result is a landscape filled with disconnection and addiction. According to Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, when we are working and using our phones simultaneously, we get distracted and that prevents us from thinking deeply on the project we are working on. Although we may think that we will be able to check a text or email very quickly and get back to whatever we’re doing, we really can’t. Professor Miller says, “every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch cost. Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”
The worst thing is, if we are used to checking our device every few minutes, we may even become susceptible to what is called a “phantom text syndrome,” when we think we hear a text or alert, but there isn’t one. Those of us who think that we cannot disconnect ourselves from our smartphones need to know that technology does make us less effective workers. According to Joanne Cantor, author of Conquer CyberOverload, “your productivity will shoot up and you’ll give your company much better quality and quantity if you’re not always switching between email and your work…. It is simply because the brain can’t focus on two things at once; so you are always losing your train of thought.”
Overuse of smartphones also leads to several health issues. While one major study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, associated high social media usage to depression, other research findings indicate that social networking with our smartphones has a very high chance of increasing our anxiety level both about how we compare with other people and about being removed from these devices. Additionally, there are dangers of walking into traffic as one checks her/his messages. There is also a new health problem due to our virtual co-dependency called “tech neck,” which can affect many of us since we tilt our heads forward 60 degrees to peer at our phones, putting about 60 pounds of pressure on our neck. There’s also vision fatigue and headaches along with insomnia, which is very common among heavy users of smartphones.
So, what’s the antidote for the problems associated with our smartphones? Now there are mobile apps that will help us monitor how much time we are spending on the phone each day. Digital wellness is a budding industry these days with loads of self-help gurus offering miracle cures for screen addiction. Some of those solutions involve new devices such as the “Light Phone,” a device with an extremely limited feature set that is meant to wean users off time-sucking apps.
There are also many self-help books written by experts who offer their advice as to how to take a break from our phones. The authors of these self-help books urge us to spend more time in nature, which may counteract the focus-draining effects of too much time spent on looking at our phones. Other experts recommend that we put our phone on silent mode, and to set our email to deliver new messages only every 30 minutes. Digital Sabbath has become quite popular here in the West among many heavy users of smartphones, where the users give their devices a rest for 24 hours over a weekend. Finally, experts exhort us not to carry our phones everywhere we go. The self-help gurus who offer cures for our smart phone addiction are unanimous in their advice: “Don’t be a slave to your smart phone.”
While it’s true that our smartphones have helped us get connected with the whole world and have made our lives easier and more social in important ways, we also seem to have less “genuine” connections with people in our everyday life. We are having fewer quality conversations based on physical presence. Today’s technology has fractured our concentration into smaller bits diffusing them in many directions. As we have become more technologically savvy, we also seem to have lost our ability to live in the present where we can engage in genuine, one-on-one communication. The question is: do we want to live an i-life or a real life? Do we give more attention to a five-inch piece of hardware with no pulse than we give to humans.
(Abhik Roy is professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)