I’m beginning to think that we are living more and more in an age where being ‘connected’ all the time is a basic requirement. Smartphones have become our primary communications portals in the last 5 to 6 years. The speed and convenience of the personal computer is now in our hands with phone, text, internet, email, apps and social networking all tied into one device. One device to rule them all and sadly it seems, to rule many of us. We are becoming addicted to our smartphones.
When I was in school back in 2002 maybe 20% of students had a cell phone and certainly none of them had smartphones. Smartphones simply didn’t have much consumer penetration in the marketplace. Today in the same school something like 97% of students have a phone and most of those are of the smart variety. Kids these days can barely keep off them either. The iPhone and the Android devices have captured the zeitgeist and created the Facebook generation. Its a generation dependent on constant communication and continuous virtual socialization. Now it seems that many of us can’t live without them. For some people the idea of not being able to tweet about their day or post comments on Facebook is like not breathing. In a recent study, 21% of smartphone users admitted to having an addiction to their phones. To me I think its much higher than that because the issue of smartphone addiction and the severity of the condition is not known to many people. A lot of users who are addicted simply don’t know they are because society accepts that a smartphone is used so frequently throughout the day. Thats the problem with ‘must have’ gadgets. It becomes difficult to imagine life without them. Ask yourself honestly, can you go one whole day without your smartphone? One whole day without checking your email, Facebook, playing with apps and or surfing the web? If the thought of life without it makes you feel uneasy and you feel a constant gnawing tug to reach for that iPhone or that Blackberry then you might just be addicted.
I first realized I had a problem about 2 months ago. My day began by reaching for my iPhone before I had even gotten out of bed. I’d check my emails, read some articles on a few sites and then get up. I found it impossible to separate my love of technology as a hobby from my job as a tech analyst. Throughout the day several times while away from my desk I would pick the device up to read the latest YouTube comments or read a few more emails. Whats more I began to notice a phenomena that is becoming more and more common with a lot of people and I found myself doing it too. Playing with my phone while watching something on TV. I’d be watching the television in bits and pieces while largely distracted by a game I was playing on my iPhone. My attention span was abysmal. This is something I’ve noticed friends doing and even my 8 year-old niece. The information overload, constant communications interaction and continual entertainment stimulus are hugely addicting. Before going to bed there would be more time spent piddling around with the phone again before finally switching off for good. It seems my only real ‘down time’ was sleep. How sad is that? From that moment I decided that I needed to draw the line somewhere between the job and the hobby. I set myself the target of working from 9 to 5 with a one hour lunch. After 5pm the computer is turned off, the smartphone simply becomes a phone for receiving calls from friends and family. I disabled the smartphone features of my iPhone. I turned off the Wi-Fi and 3G, even the Edge coverage to ensure I couldn’t use it after hours. What disturbed me most of all was how difficult giving up the device was. I even experienced withdrawal symptoms and felt like I’d lost a limb.
I’ve always prided myself for having enormous self control and living a healthy life so its never easy to admit having a dependency on something. In truth none of us really need these devices, even the business people and technology folks like myself out there. They are a convenient tool but they are certainly not a basic human need. My problem with our IT driven society at present is that people are expected to be in contact more and more due to these devices. Its becoming ridiculous, its becoming antisocial. How many times have you been in the company of a friend, partner or family member in a social gathering or in a fancy restaurant and have had to deal with them ignoring you because they were tapping compulsively on their phone? Its so rude and introverted. Now that I’ve noticed this behavior in myself I’m disgusted by it. Many people have thrown their smartphones away and replaced them with regular cell phone handsets. Although this may seem impossible to many of you out there and a tad over the top, it will break the addiction if you feel you can’t discipline yourself sufficiently, plus it’ll probably save you a fortune in the process. You may find it enormously liberating to be free from the dependancy. Of course to many consumers a smartphone is a sign of affluence or a status symbol like a piece of jewelry but I disagree, that may have been true two or three years ago but not now.
I believe society has opened a Pandora’s box with these devices. We’ve invented something that satiates our desire for information and continuous mental stimulation and we’ve expected ourselves to adapt to it so quickly. I wrote an article a few weeks back called “There is nothing social about social networking“, I discussed the very topic of how a good old fashioned face-to-face conversation (and I don’t mean video conferencing) cannot be replaced by Facebook or Twitter. Human beings are social creatures designed to interact together in a real world physical place. 80% of communication is nonverbal. Body language is an essential part of how we converse, I’m concerned that these devices are forcing us to live in an artificial world of vapid compartmentalism where isolation fosters loneliness and depression. To create something that causes anxiety and enslavement for people who simply cannot get through their day without it is a sign of how little we know about what we really need. Our sophisticated communication abilities are what make us a truly advanced and complicated entity on Planet Earth. I would hate to think that a consumer electronic device designed to improve this skill could in fact damage it in some way by making the next generation socially inept. I’m one of many people who often wonder, how did we live without the convenience of cell phones? Perhaps for some of us its time to find out.