Is your smartphone using you?

Apparently there’s a trend among the cognoscenti to use retro phones, with people like Iggy Pop, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Warren Buffett all seen using these to help “control their smartphone addiction”. They may have a point.

Smartphones are entwined with our day to day activities, from the moment they wake us in the morning to the moment we plug them in last thing at night. This intensive connection means 81% of people keep their phones near them “almost all the time during waking hours”, while 63% want them close by while they sleep.

Gallup says about half of smartphone users check their phones at least several times an hour. In the UK we check our phones fifty times a day. It's even more pronounce amoung the youth. Forty-six percent of 18-24 year olds check their phones every 15 minutes, prompting the Pope to urge them to spend less time with these distractions. And the UK’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers observed children aged between 3 and 4 have no problem swiping a screen, but have trouble understanding real space, and possess “little or no” dexterity in their fingers, due to their use of smart devices.

Smartphone separation causes anxiety across all age groups. Fifty three percent of UK mobile phone users become anxious when they "lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or credit, or have no network coverage” a recent study claims.

These separation anxieties are surprisingly severe. A 2015 study at the University of Missouri found it can cause poor performance on cognitive tests. "Like drug addicts, smartphone addicts will also display withdrawal symptoms like restlessness, anxiety and even anger," says consultant psychiatrist Thomas Lee.

It’s not as if smartphones are something we don’t need to use. Smartphones are part of working life, and this is eroding the barrier between work and personal life. Figures from the Pew Research Center suggest 44 percent of Internet users regularly performed job tasks outside the workplace last year, often using smartphones, while a Gallup poll in May 2014 found that stress levels in US workers were higher the more often they checked work emails on their smartphones out of normal hours.

The impact is a productivity benefit for employers, but at a cost to employees. One-third of workers say these technologies have increased the number of hours they work.

To be fair, some employers recognize the negative effect this has on the work/life balance of their employees. Volkswagen’s servers don’t send corporate emails to its German-based non-manager employees between 6:15 p.m. and 7 a.m., but there’s a need for other employers to take steps to ensure staff get the personal time they need.

Smartphones are even impacting personal relationships. A study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that we obsessively check the devices while we are with our loved ones, (consciously or unconsciously), so called “phone snubbing”, or “phubbing”. The practise means already almost half of us (46%) in relationships feel snubbed by their partner’s phone use, and one-in-four of us (23%) think our partner’s obsession with checking their smartphone is a “problem”.

Singapore-based Clinical psychologist Professor Marlene Lee says technology disorders are not new: "Technology addictions actually share the same underlying mechanisms as other addictions; they just have new 'faces'," she said.

Such frequent use of smartphones is damaging sleep patterns. Their blue light displays impact our circadian rhythm and can cause insomnia, prompting some technology firms to begin developing “safe screens” that emit less harmful light.

As you can see, too much smartphone use can be bad for us. Just like any addiction, quitting is tough. Harvard Business School professor, Leslie Perlow’s Sleeping with Your Smartphone study claims taking regular “predictable time off" (PTO) from smart devices improves efficiency, collaboration and work-life balance.”

This attempt to control smartphone use is why some people are choosing to sometimes use older mobile phones. Accenture’s chief HR, Ellyn Shook, admits to finding it hard to leave her iPhone alone, which is why she uses a more traditional flip phone at night and weekends.

 “Too many online social networks and an excess of e-mail and applications, have made us slaves to technology in our everyday life,” warns Lekki, a company that customizes second hand “retro” phones for those of us attempting to control our smartphone addiction.

Are you addicted?

Early warning sings of smartphone addiction include:

·        Constantly checking your phone for no reason

·        Feeling anxious or restless at being without your phone

·        Avoiding social interaction to spend time on your phone

·        Waking up in the middle of the night to check your smartphone

·        A decline in academic or work performance on account of extensive phone activity

·        Becoming easily distracted by events on your smartphone (emails, apps, Twitter).



Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.