When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he proclaimed that, “It works like magic.” And he was right. Smartphones are pocket-sized computers that allow us to do things that would have seemed like magic just ten years ago.
Stuck somewhere without a ride? You can call a cab with a single click. Need the perfect pump-up track for your workout? You can play any song ever recorded. Can’t remember which exit to take for your in-law’s house? You can look up directions to anywhere. All from the palm of your hand.
But all that good has come with a pricetag.
The downside of always-on
The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but it may have been the first with mass consumer appeal. In the intervening years since its launch, smartphone growth has exploded. In 2016, nearly 1.5 billion smartphones were sold worldwide, and in the United States, 81% of the population now owns one.
Smartphones, more than any other of our technologies, have precipitated our “always-on” culture. Having that much computer power at hand 24/7 means we’re always connected, always reachable, always “in the loop.”
On the surface, that sounds great. We’re reachable for emergencies. We never want for social connection. We stay updated on breaking news and sports scores. We always know if we should take an umbrella before going out…
But all that “connection” comes with it’s own set of problems that smartphone users now must confront.
- Phubbing, or phone snubbing, is when we ignore each other in real life in favor of tapping and swiping our phones. This isn’t just rude; a 2015 survey found that nearly a quarter of respondents said phubbing put a strain on their relationships.
- FOMO (fear of missing out). The constant connection to our social graphs leads to feeling like we’re always in danger of missing out on something great our friends are doing. All that worry can lead to chronic sadness and anxiety.
- Addiction. Cell phones pull us in with the promise of variable rewards, training us like lab rats that if we just swipe open the home screen something fun will be waiting for us. It’s no wonder that 50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices. (And that addiction leads to anxiety and depression.)
- Distraction. It’s hard to get work done because our phones are always pinging with new emails, updates, and messages. But phone distraction causes a much more dangerous problem. The constant addictive pull of our phones leads many to engage in dangerous behavior like texting or browsing while driving. Distracted driving causes literally thousands of deaths each year and billions of dollars in damages.
- Stress. The pressure to stay continually connected leads us to pull out our smartphones almost on autopilot — even if we’re doing so at times when we should be concentrating on something else (like a meal with friends, work, or even sleep). That need to check every incoming message or alert increases our stress levels.
What to do about it
Advising you to just give up your phone and go live in the woods away from the dangers of wifi and cellular signals would be impractical. There’s no easy five step prescription for curing yourself of mobile phone overuse.
Besides, smartphones still do a lot of good. They help scientists track wildlife, for example, and help prosecutors punish war criminals. Smartphone cameras are even being used to perform eye health examinations in parts of the world where traditional optometry equipment is too expensive.
These are undeniably good things.
And yet, we are also clearly struggling to learn how to live well with these technologies, even as they rapidly remake the world around us. One recent study found that the average person checks their smartphone 85 times each day, during which they spend about five hours browsing the web or using apps.
That’s the average user. We’re spending about a third of the time we’re awake each day interacting with our mobile phones, and the evidence suggests that isn’t totally healthy. The truth is, mobile devices and apps are very good at getting us hooked, and modifying our behavior toward them is difficult.
So here’s a simple suggestion: begin by taking a critical look at your phone usage. Ask yourself what you get out of using your phone. What apps offer more distraction than benefit? Are there times when you could go without your phone?
Start small and create periods of absence from your mobile phone (and your other technology). Try putting your phone away for an entire meal. Go for a walk and leave your phone at home (something author Will Powers calls “going commando”), put your phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode when you go to bed (or, even better, when you get home from work), create a “no cell phones” room in your house where you and your family can relax without interruption.
These are tiny things, but they’re cumulative. The point isn’t to completely give up your mobile phone cold turkey. Rather, try to be more mindful about your phone usage and make sure you create for yourself little pockets of solitude in the always-on world.