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Smartphones: A delight, and … a cross


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Paul De Maeyer - published on 07/26/18

"The trouble is that smartphones, like most technology, aren’t simply bad. They’re worse: a diabolical mixture of bad and very good."

How can we defend ourselves from what has become in an inseparable, and at the same time invasive, companion?

Is checking your smartphone to see if you’ve received new messages the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Do you repeat this action countless times during the day, even while you’re at the dinner table, or in the company of friends, or alone with your spouse?

Is checking your email for the umpteenth time the last thing you do in the day, before going to sleep? Do you actually go to bed accompanied by your smartphone? If so, you’re suffering from smartphone addiction, which is starting to be recognized as an authentic illness.

This pathology even has a name now. Although it’s not exactly a phobia, it’s called “nomophobia.” The term, which is a neologism first used in 2008 in a British paper, is made up of “nomo”—which has nothing to to in this case with the Greek word nomos (law); rather, it’s the abbreviation of the expression “no-mobile-phone”—and the suffix “phobia,” and it refers to the state of anxiety typical of those who fear being disconnected or not having access to their cell phone network.

Mobile Consumer Behaviour Report 2018

A British research report, Mobile Consumer Behaviour Report 2018, provides some interesting information about the use/abuse of smartphones, devices that the report refers to as the “digital Swiss-army knife.”

This research, carried out by Textlocal—a business text messaging company—reveals that 85 percent of the adults in the UK own a smartphone, and that the average user changes his or her cell phone once every two years, spending last year on average £433.41 (about $570).

What is perhaps more striking is the level of dependence on smartphones, the effect of which has been described by a therapist as “akin to cocaine,” the study reveals.

In fact, more than half of British users check their device within 15 minutes after waking up—possibly because they are looking for a job; indeed, 89 percent of the people looking for employment consider their smartphone an “essential” instrument.

The average user, Textlocal’s study continues, checks his cell phone 10,000 times a year, 4 out of 10 times (40 percent) out of mere habit. Precisely for this reason, Apple has announced that it will expand the “Do not disturb” capabilities on its operating system.

Obsessive use

Nearly a third of the participants in the study, 30.4 percent, admit to checking social media “constantly” throughout the day, while a fifth, 21.6 percent, are constantly texting—sending and receiving messages on one messaging platform or another.

Male users in the 25-44 age range are the ones who spend most time browsing online. Overall, women are the most frequent users of SMS and instant messaging (IM), but the most avid messaging users are women from 16 to 24 years of age. More than two thirds of them are “constantly” stuck to their screens to exchange SMS or IM, according to the study.

The average person dedicates more than 9 hours per week to browsing on their smartphone—more than an hour a day. In fact, according to Textlocal’s study, last year the time people spent online on their phones surpassed—for the first time ever—their time spent online using a computer.

Health problems

Excessive smartphone use can cause a whole series of problems. According to researcher Kristin D. Zhao, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the use of smartphones can lead to an abnormal movement of the thumbs and cause pain, tendinitis, or even osteoarthritis.

Other risks tied to prolonged smartphone use are tendinitis in the wrist and text neck syndrome, a problem with the spinal column caused by the incorrect posture assumed by many smartphone and computer users. And as if this were not enough, spending long periods of time glued to the little screen of a smartphone can lead to vision problems and even macular degeneration.

Excessive smartphone use is also linked to problems such as headaches, depression, and insomnia. In Italy, the sleep medicine center at Don Calabria Sacred Heart Hospital in Negrar (Verona) sounded the alarm last March regarding the growing number of young people with sleep problems, as the effect of excessive mobile device use.

There’s even such a thing as “phantom vibration syndrome.” It’s more common that you might think; according to a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology published in “Computers in Human Behaviour” magazine, 9 out of 10 users experience the phenomenon. “They perceive and interpret small and frequent muscle spasms as cell phone vibrations,” explains the author of the paper, Robert Rosenberger, quoted by ANSA.

Some remedies

Therefore, healthy detachment from your smartphone wouldn’t do any harm. But how can you achieve it? Perhaps the simplest way is to fall back on the time-tested remedy of self discipline.

It’s not easy, but with a few small reminders, it could work, especially when you’re on the job. As an article published last July 9 on the site explains, the first thing you can do is check your smartphone only at preestablished times, above all when you’re at work.

According to a study by Microsoft, after an interruption due to notification for mail or something similar, it takes people from 20 to 25 minutes to return productively to the task they were doing before the notification.

If these and similar tricks don’t work for you, you can also have recourse to electronic tools, such as choosing the “Do not disturb” mode or—if your operating system allows it—switching your screen to black and white or grayscale, as suggested by Catherine Price in her book How to Break Up With Your Phone, which went on sale last February. There are also apps and programs that can help, such as Flipd, Checky, Wind Down, and Forest.

Certainly, these methods are a bit ambiguous, because it’s basically asking “Big Tech” to protect us from its own technology. It’s something like fighting fire with fire, observes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.

The same author, nevertheless, entrusted himself successfully to Ditto. It’s a small device that vibrates when a phone call or message arrives from specific people, thus making the smartphone “boring.” If we know that we will receive a notification if something important happens, what sense does it make to constantly check the phone?

For Burkeman, “The trouble is that smartphones, like most technology, aren’t simply bad. They’re worse: a diabolical mixture of bad and very good.”

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