Over the past decade, smartphones have became part of the landscape of everyday life. On the street, during your commute, maybe even at your own dinner table — the sight of someone staring and swiping is to be expected.
None of us will be surprised to learn that ownership is at an all time high: in the UK, 95% of people aged 16–54 own a smartphone, which is now where 62% of online minutes are spent. With the upcoming 5G revolution promising significantly faster download speeds and virtual reality apps, our fixation with these gadgets is only positioned to grow. We’ll all be living in The Jetsons and everything will be great.
Now that we’ve had some time to acclimatise to this relatively new technology, the side effects are rising to the surface. Spoiler alert: it’s worse than you might think.
A paradigm shift in your pocket
Our reliance upon these magical devices for communication, information, navigation, entertainment and even self-expression make it easy to forget that there was ever a time before — but it’s worth remembering that smartphones haven’t really been around that long. The 1980s brought us the first brick-like mobile phones, 2001 the first colour screen, and 2007 the first smartphone, the iphone. So it’s only really been a decade that we’ve had smartphones like today’s — but just think how world-changing these little things really are. Thanks to a few ounces of glass and metal, I can access an almost infinite amount of information, instantly connect with people around the world, and follow global events in real time. Thanks to social media, I’m also able to experience a second life that exists entirely online.
But — let’s deal with the ‘but’. Largely regardless of the form it takes, technology is a precarious thing. Something may seem poised to transform the world in profoundly positive ways, but it is nigh impossible to predict the full effects in advance or during early stages. Some implications might only become apparent over time, and some might be inherently harder to foresee — as with human psychology and culture.
So what has 10 years of smartphone use taught us?
Addiction, Isolation and Cognitive Dysfunction
Early concerns about mobile phones focussed largely upon physical health risks from the radiation, a debate that continues to this day. A decade on, however, the most obvious side effects we’re seeing are social, impacting how we behave, feel and interact with the world around us.
While we may joke that we’re addicted to our smartphones, we probably are. In fact, it’s no secret that they were deliberately designed to be addictive: the variability and unpredictability of what awaits us on these devices keeps us hooked. When we find pleasure-inducing ‘rewards’ — likes, shares, captivating content — we experience a rise in dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with compulsion and addiction. To make matters worse, phone addiction has been linked to anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings, and withdrawal-like symptoms.
Studies have shown that on average we check our phones every 12 minutes. According to endocrinologist Robert Lustig, constant smartphone notifications are prompting our brains to live in a constant state of fear and stress, with the inundation of buzzes and beeps triggering a fight or flight response. Existing in this state impedes some of our highest-order cognitive functioning.
On the flipside, through information overload and hyperconnectivity, smartphones have become the enemy of boredom. But whilst this is great for breaking up your daily commute, neuroscientists have observed that boredom is often a gateway to original and creative thinking — so maybe we’re getting dumber too.
Counterintuitively, digital life is also making us more distant, drained and distracted. Despite being connected to a wider network of people around the world, devices like smartphones take us out of the present moment, detracting from face-to-face encounters. Pictures often speak louder than words, and Eric Pickersgill’s clever photography project eloquently sums up how detached we’ve become from the real world.
Lastly, the impact that smartphones and other screen technology might have upon children is particularly worrying. Neurotherapist Mari Swingle has observed that the use of interactive technology — by both parents and infants — decreases infant-caregiver interactions, which are essential for brain development. When staring at a screen, the physical environment is blocked out, and children are attaching to objects instead of peers and parents. A 2017 study similarly revealed that digital interruptions — technoference — between parents and children can be linked to child behavioural issues.
Taking our heads out of the iClouds
So after that flyby tour of smartphone side effects, is all hope lost?
Reassuringly, people are becoming aware of the pitfalls of smartphone usage. According to one survey, over 70% of adults aged 18–34 felt that they used their phones too much. Ofcom’s 2018 annual report noted that many were acknowledging that ubiquitous internet access disrupted human relationships.
Across the internet you’ll find blog articles advising how to cut down on unhealthy phone usage, or communities dedicated to wasting less time surfing the internet. Some advice is as simple as turning off notifications and setting your screen to greyscale, which makes it less appealing to look at. Some people are even returning to the less distracting flip phones of yore.
Thankfully, the tides are turning in Silicon Valley too. For one, there’s the Center for Humane Technology, made up of former tech insiders and CEOs concerned with how technology is hijacking our society and our minds — particularly with phones, apps and the Internet. Worried about tech that destroys self-worth, fragments our communities, and is deliberately addictive, the Center pushes for more humane design that understands human vulnerabilities. Their work also includes applying political pressure, creating a cultural awakening among consumers, and empowering tech employees who want to improve society.
Last year, two major Apple investors published an open letter calling on the company to ensure that young people are safely using their products, concerned by research showing that excessive use of smartphones and social media can cause mental health issues and problems with sleep and concentration. In response, Apple introduced the Screen Time app, which allows users to monitor how much time they’re spending on their phones. It’s also possible to set daily limits for apps, which lock them once the allowance is up. Google has made similar moves, and has created a ‘Wind Down’ feature which sets the phone to Do Not Disturb mode and greyscale in the evening to aid better sleep.
Where do we go from here?
It’s no simple question to ask who is responsible for ensuring responsible smartphone usage — tech developers, schools, parents, governments, health agencies? US studies have shown that parents believe it is their responsibility to monitor smartphone use in children — but how do they become informed about the dangers in the first place?
Some academics have suggested that smartphones come with a warning pertaining to their addictiveness and negative impact upon social relations. Or perhaps we should simply take more responsibility for ourselves? Though it’s tricky when we’re dealing with a technology that was designed to addict us. At this point, tech developers shoulder at least some of the burden — and thankfully it’s looking like there’s been a shift in the right direction.
In any case, there’s an underlying question of whether innovators carry a social responsibility. Some professions, like medicine or law enforcement, follow a code of ethics, but there is no encompassing guideline for tech developers — despite their massive influence. This needs to change, with human wellbeing as a key concern — alongside the discouragement of exploitation of human vulnerabilities (like addiction).
In our increasinly hi-tech society, we should be talking about these things more. Smartphone side effects can be looked at as a gasp for breath from the canary-in-the-coal-mine regarding the wider relationship between humanity and technology. As more and more items of technology become ‘smart’, become part of everyday living, become an extension of ourselves, we need to be aware of the full spectrum of implications — and act to preserve human wellbeing.
Changing perspectives on smartphones ultimately provide an interesting reminder of the complex relationship we have with technology. From smartphones to nuclear power, technology is ultimately a neutral tool — how good or bad it is being determined by how we decide to use it, and whether we pay attention to the warning signs.
Last year marked the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and odd though it may seem, the eponymous doctor’s relationship with his monster might have something interesting to say about our approach to smartphones. At its heart, Frankenstein isn’t really a warning about inventing something inherently terrible; it’s about failing to take responsibility for one’s creation — this is how we find ourselves with something monstrous on our hands. Similarly, renowned technology commentator Bruno Latour argues that we should care for our technologies as we do our children — and not leave them to their own (smart)devices.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the the world’s most iconic smartphone bears on its back the image of a bitten apple, reminding us that knowledge and power may come with consequences.
At this stage in our human development, we retain the power to curb the negative impact of smartphones (and other similar technologies) by taking action on the side effects we now see. It’s time to take control of our gadgets — before they take control of us.