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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Space invaders: our addiction to smartphones

The negatives of this consumer phenomenon are yet to fully emerge

Simpler times 70 years ago, but even then, TV technology came with warnings of the potential effects on young minds Camerique Archive / Getty
Simpler times 70 years ago, but even then, TV technology came with warnings of the potential effects on young minds Camerique Archive / Getty

Twenty years ago, the smartphone technology we now take for granted would have blown our minds. Managing to squeeze games, films, satnav, banking, news, instant messaging and countless other tools into a palm-sized gizmo has been a stunning example of human ingenuity, but questions have been raised over whether those devices have become too entrancing, and whether the convenient gateway they provide to the internet has also become a gateway to poor mental health.

Last week, two major Apple shareholders voiced their concerns to the company in an open letter published at thinkdifferentlyaboutkids.com, questioning the impact of Apple devices on children’s well-being. By citing studies connecting excessive smartphone use with poor attention span, sleep deprivation, loss of empathy and increased risk of depression, it posed the question of whether, in the push to make smartphones indispensable, companies have failed to consider the consequences.

Fear surrounding the impact of technology on society is hardly new. The 1960s and 1970s saw pressure groups such as Clean-Up TV in the UK and Action for Children’s Television in the USA express deep concern about the ubiquity of television, and as psychologists discovered links between children’s behaviour patterns and things they saw on screen, many parents began to see it as a pernicious influence on family life.

In more recent times there have been similar concerns about the internet – even before the first smartphones were launched. Those who warned of potential disorders, however, would frequently offer expensive rehabilitation schemes in the same breath, and were often dismissed as either cranks or opportunists.

However, in recent years those voices have got louder, and the warnings more severe. Last summer, Mandy Saligari, a London rehab clinic specialist, likened giving your child a smartphone to giving them a gram of cocaine. “Why do we pay so much less attention to [technology] than we do to drugs and alcohol,” she asked, “when they work on the same brain impulses?”

While the loudest noises on this issue still tend to be made by those who seek to treat the condition they’ve identified, there’s no doubt that smartphones have caused a radical change in human behaviour. Depending on which study you believe, we check our phones anywhere between 50 and 150 times per day. We check them in the middle of the night, when we’re crossing the road and when we’re waiting at traffic lights.

When 2,000 Americans were asked last year about their mobile phone habits, nearly half said that they were trying to cut down on usage, while another survey found that over half of respondents admitted to finding it impossible not to use their smartphone while on holiday. The fact that we’re troubled by the amount we rely on our phones and are unable to change our behaviour would certainly be indicative of a problem, and advice on tackling it ranges from the useful to the satirical.

Austrian designer Klemens Schillinger came up with a Substitute Phone, a dummy device which you can swipe and pinch when you get itchy fingers, while a number of tech experts advocate turning your smartphone display to greyscale, thus removing the colours that do their utmost to attract and distract us.

The software that powers smartphones is certainly designed to grab our attention, whether it’s red notifications or flashing animations, but the most worrying forms of compulsive, phone-related behaviour are activities already recognised as problematic, such as addiction to gambling or pornography, or sociopathic behaviour on social media.

Last week, the World Health Organisation proposed the inclusion of “hazardous gaming” and “gaming disorder” in an update of its International Compendium of Diseases, which has prompted yet more debate over the pathway from gaming to addiction.

There are undoubtedly young people – predominantly men – whose lives have been shattered by addiction to games, but some question whether gaming causes those mental problems, or if gaming is merely indulged in because of an existing condition. However, with “internet gaming disorder” also set to be included in the next edition of DSM-5 (the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals), there is evidently a growing acceptance of the seriousness of the problem.

While mental health professionals try to help the afflicted and the addicted, who should take the blame? Smartphones have become the fastest adopted consumer technology in history, and the race to capture our attention on those devices has been fierce.

Invasive notification and reminder systems prompt us to do this and do that, and social media apps instil a fear of missing out which compels us to visit and revisit them.

Our anxiety doesn’t just increase when we’re away from our devices – it happens when we’re using them.

A former Google product manager, Tristan Harris, as been at the forefront of identifying techniques used by companies to instil compulsive behaviour that can drift into addiction; these range from the “like” system used on Facebook and Twitter to the Snapchat “streak” feature which subconsciously urges users not to miss out a day of messaging with certain friends. “Whether they want to or not,” he said to CBS News in relation to smartphones, “they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral, and it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.”

If competition for our attention on handheld electronic devices is being done in a way that’s intentionally habit forming, then it’s young people – who perhaps don’t have the mental development and wherewithal to resist it – who are at greatest risk. In response to the open letter from the shareholders, Apple has responded with a promise to do more to keep children safe, by introducing new parental tools to help monitor usage and identify problematic behaviour.

But in that same statement, they admit to creating “powerful products that inspire, entertain, and educate”.

The use of the word “powerful” is telling; what’s not clear is whether technology companies truly understand the power that they wield, and to what degree responsible use of that power is being diluted by corporate ambition.

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Read more:

Are they listening? Deconstructing tech conspiracy theories

Tech year in review: Shout-out to suspicion and system errors

Can Google Chrome’s ad filter save us from those annoying pop-ups?

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