"Smartphone addiction" is a term that entered our cultural lexicon relatively recently - you could say it's A Thing. And it's a thing increasingly cited by techno-skeptics and self-help authors looking to capitalize on our natural desire to purge "unhealthy" habits from our lives (historically, a very American kind of fad). Not to mention: the ever-popular fear that we're all being spied on. Some people are even switching back to dumphones to avoid all the awfulness smartphones have brought into our lives. In short, the smartphone's ubiquity has made it The Next Big Source of All Your ProblemsTM. And I think, in spite of the best intentions - being more in the moment, having more meaningful interactions, and sleeping better - we've all kind of jumped the gun here.
The idea that smartphones are somehow having a broad negative impact our lives has understandable appeal. First, it's highly reductive. It takes what are often complex and nuanced issues - our anxieties, our unhappiness, and our problems - and traces them back to a little brick we all carry around every day. It's something we can all relate to. Second, it appeals to a romantic sort of nostalgia. Don't you remember what it was like walking around with a dumbphone that could only do calls and text? What a time to be alive! After all, we were so much more engaged with our world before [insert technology that greatly improved life for everyone here] showed up, right?
As you're probably aware, the rapid ascendance of concerns about something like smartphone addiction is hardly unique - it's just another chapter in a long history of people becoming distrustful of technology that radically transforms our lives. In 1858, people genuinely thought the invention of the telegraph, with its near-instantaneous transmission, would ruin the quality of news reporting. Later, it was the turn of the telephone to be a source of erosion on society. Personal computers had their time, too - I'm particularly fond of a quote in this article citing the phenomenon of computerphobia.
In the early 1980s, the age of the personal computer had arrived and "computerphobia" was suddenly everywhere. Sufferers experienced "a range of resistances, fears, anxieties, and hostilities," according to the 1996 book Women and Computers. "These can take such forms as fear of physically touching the computer or of damaging it and what's inside it, a reluctance to read or talk about computers, feeling threatened by those who do know something about them, feeling that you can be replaced by a machine, become a slave to it, or feeling aggressive towards computers."
Video games, television, and the Internet itself have been targets of similar (and seemingly endless) fear-mongering for years. Articles citing their corrupting influence on our society are so numerous that the subject has become a target for search engine optimization. This kind of reaction isn't limited to technology, either. The very fact that something is wildly popular - especially with young people - is often enough to sound the cultural threat alarm. In 1859, Scientific American published an article claiming that a wildly popular new pastime was rotting the minds of the youths. The pastime was chess. Yes, the board game which is now culturally synonymous with intelligence.
Smartphones don't even get the honor of being the first cellular device accused of fraying the very fabric of society: even the humble dumbphone, now the de facto symbol of the (allegedly) growing 'unplugging' movement, was blamed for "killing" the quality of our face to face interactions just a short decade ago. Earlier yet, beepers caught flack as their popularity with teenagers skyrocketed in the 1990s, and they became widely banned in schools because drug dealers used them. Which, if the connection isn't clear there: adults thought beepers would get kids addicted to drugs.
All of the arguments about the addictive nature of new technology have already been litigated. And technology has won out every time it's mattered.
You might say smartphones are different, though. Now we have advanced artificial intelligence powering social networks that have been designed to cue a dopamine response and addict us! Facebook is basically a drug, and we've never seen anything like it before. Beaten to the punch again: people were saying the same thing about dumbphone texting and dopamine triggers in 2010. After all, we know that people basically stopped talking aloud when everyone started texting - we all had to get that rush of just one more ding. Starting to sound familiar?
Putting sarcasm aside, the truth of the matter is that all of the arguments about the addictive nature of new technology have already been litigated. And technology has won out every time it's mattered. Video games have been subjected to the addiction and morality debate for decades now, and it's an industry that shows no sign of slowing down (if anything, gaming is becoming more mainstream). Binge watching television shows is now a culturally acceptable activity; I remember when sitting in front of the TV for hours on end was absolutely certain to turn your brain to mush.
Glancing at Facebook and Twitter while I wait for someone or when I'm on the train certainly isn't as harmful as the countless hours I spent playing Diablo II in middle school or World of Warcraft in college, completely isolated from the real world. It's not something I'm proud of, but sometimes I'd sit in front of the screen for ten hours or more, feeling unable to leave my seat because I had to finish just one more quest. Anything to excess can have negative consequences, be they mental or physical, but at a certain point we have to acknowledge personal responsibility is a factor in potentially "addictive" activities.
If you feel you can't trust yourself to use social media in a responsible manner, maybe it's time to evaluate if you need that app installed at all. But that's a very personal decision and not, I would argue, a symptom of social media or smartphones being to blame for our various woes. If I could do it all again, knowing what I do now, I probably wouldn't have spent all that time playing video games that were ultimately meaningless. But I don't hold the video games accountable for the decisions I made - the games weren't the problem. The problem was that I didn't really understand how what I was doing was harming me. But that's what growing up is about: learning from the mistakes of our youth to shape the adults we become.
As I sit here now on the cusp of 30 watching a growing number of people decry the smartphone as a piece of technology that is making our lives less enjoyable - that it is causing us to live them less fully - I notice how few of those voices are from the coming generation. The children who have grown up with smartphones, it seems, are largely unconcerned with all these problems we point to. Do some of them probably spend too much time on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? Sure. But I don't think we're witnessing the collapse of civil society or the brainwashing of our population into mindless media consumption drones who will never look up from their screens. We're just watching another chapter of that story I spoke of - our relationship to technologies that change our world - unfold. And really, what is so horrible about stopping to take a photo of a special moment or document your travels to share with family and friends on social media? I certainly enjoy seeing what people are up to, even if the content is sometimes frivolous.
That doesn't mean that we should sit back and let the likes of Facebook and Google do whatever they want. And it doesn't mean those platforms can't be used to enable unhealthy behaviors. Of course we must work to limit the potential of these platforms to abuse our trust, misinform us, expose children to content they really shouldn't be seeing, or interactions they shouldn't be having. As with any new technology, we're learning a lot about the potential for negative outcomes as a result of how these things are being used in the real world. And I think some important conversations are happening because of that.
Many of us probably do check our phones too often; out of habit and reflex more than any pressing need.
Perhaps periodic "unplugging" or switching to a dumbphone holds appeal beyond nostalgia or a desire (ironically, I must point out) to broadcast that you aren't the person looking down at your phone all the time. I can't say I really understand it, but for the right person, maybe that really is a better way to live. Many of us probably do check our phones too often; out of habit and reflex more than any pressing need. But how else, exactly, would you be spending those moments? I find it hard to believe I'm missing out on deep, meaningful interactions because I checked Twitter as I sat at a bar or read the news while I waited for a meeting to start. I think most of us (granted, not all) have the presence of mind to understand when looking at a smartphone is going to have a negative social consequence or make us unable to appreciate a really special experience. I have a little more faith in people than that.
And eventually, this conversation will inevitably cease to matter. The smartphone and platforms like Facebook will one day be supplanted by new technologies and new forms of media, and we will have these same arguments all over again. And we'll all be older, wiser, and very sure that this new thing, whatever it may be, is the one that's finally going to send humanity over a cliff.