Our use of technology, or perhaps overuse or misuse, has been something of a cause celebre in the media of late. That’s partly because some of those that created the technologies have now come out and said some of them are very likely not good for you. One former executive at Facebook has said he doesn’t believe children should even be on the platform. But we can’t blame social media alone; countless articles of late have stated that we are probably just too connected, which is affecting our social skills and making us more depressed – especially the young. But why can’t we put our gadgets down, and what exactly are the negative consequences of too much time spent on our devices?
Pew Research recently released the details of a study which told us where in the world was the biggest smartphone penetration. South Korea was top, followed by Australia, Israel, the U.S, Spain and the UK. But that doesn’t mean people in those countries are actually using their phone all the time, or does it? Well, based on a 2016 study led by Statistica, it does look like people in those countries might fall into the category of being a “smartphone zombie.” The study said Brazilians spent the most hours on average connected to a smartphone at 4 hours 48 minutes per day. Next was China at 3 hours 3 minutes, followed by the U.S. (2 hours 37 minutes), Italy (2 hours 34 minutes), Spain (2 hours 11 minutes) and South Korea (2 hours 10 minutes). One thing rang true for all countries in the study, and that was the fact time spent on a smartphone for the average person was up quite a lot from 2012 to 2016.
If we look at which countries spend most time online, different studies give different results. One of the most recent ones from 2018 tells us it’s the Asians that don’t log off so often. The report, called We Are Social, said Thais spend the most time online with an average of 9 hours and 38 minutes per day. The Philippines was next at 9 hours 29 minutes and Brazil following at 9 hours and 14 minutes. You had to go down the list a fair bit to find the U.S., UK, Australia, or indeed many European nations. The same report stated that use of social media was one of main reasons for time being spent online, putting the Philippines as the biggest social media users, Brazil in second, Indonesia in third and Thailand in fourth.
What we are all doing when we are using our smartphone is not an easy question to answer, but one study by Mobile Insights gave some numbers on what people in the U.S. are doing when they actively use their smartphone. 19 percent of the time was spent on Facebook, and that was the leading usage time. Music, media and entertainment was next at 14 percent, followed by messaging at 12 percent, gaming at 11 percent, and utilities at 9 percent of the time. Trailing behind was shopping, productivity, and YouTube. Maybe that’s you right now.
If Facebook is number one, then we guess we should start there. What’s so bad about using Facebook? Quite a lot apparently. The American Psychological Association issued a recent report saying that too much social media use can lead to depression. Soon after, big Apple investors stated that they were concerned about the impact device use is having on society. Late last year, a former Facebook executive said social media was “ripping society apart”, calling it a beast and saying he’d never allow his kids to use it. This led to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issuing statements saying he wanted people to spend only quality time on Facebook, and that meant being active and communicating, and not just swiping. Soon after that, lots of leading tech execs got together to form The Center for Humane Technology to, “liberate us from technology addiction.” So, what is going here?
We might remember what American author Jonathan Franzen once wrote for the New York Times, in that making liking something not so natural and more of a consumer choice, we are dehumanizing interaction. He also talked about narcissism and how our online persona exists in a kind of flattering hall of mirrors. More recently, Tristan Harris talked about how our devices manipulate us into using them. It’s a kind of aesthetic thing sometimes, so he wants to make smartphones less visually appealing. Wired reported that Harris believes our gadgets are “an existential threat to human beings.” In the same story Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, said technology was addictive just like a drug. For every like we get, or Pokémon we catch, we get a hit of dopamine. And we want more…and more. “But if you overstimulate dopamine neurons, they die,” he said, and this might lead to depression or even suicidal thoughts. Others have talked about Facebook’s culture of envy. Seeing what we don’t have, or can’t have, daily, all the time, as everyone marches on through what might seem at times to be their perfect lives. Being so connected might make us vulnerable to insecurities, as in some ways social media can be quite competitive. We want this positive feedback loop, but it’s not the same as physical interaction. As one writer called it, “The human bond, so essential to our well-being, has become desiccated within the apathetic medium of the online hub. Social networks have become bottomless pools into which billions of modern Narcissists sit entranced staring at their own virtual reflections.” We don’t need to tell you about the fate of Narcissus.
We might ask if this has anything to do with all those reports around the world that tell us depression is on the rise, especially in teens. Most reports in English refer to the U.S. and the UK, but the WHO in 2017 released a study stating that depression was on the rise globally.
So, maybe we should follow Zuckerberg’s advice and use Facebook sparingly and try and use it for the good of our minds, for our edification, rather than something that makes us feel insecure or envious… or just because we are nosey.
But Facebook is only part of the reason why we can’t put our phones down. We have this exciting thing in our pocket that flashes and beeps and looks so inviting, spurring one critic to compare it to opening a casino on every street corner. For him there should be zoning laws for technology as there are for casinos. NPR in 2018 talked about this manipulative object we carry around with us, that is just so irresistible. The story mentions Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, and what we know as Pavlov’s dog. The psychologist one day realized that when his dog heard a bell or a buzzer, he knew it was feeding time, thereby associating a sound to eating, which led to the dog drooling and looking excited. Modern psychologists tell us this is what is happening to us when we hear a beep or a ding inside our pocket; we become excitable like Pavlov’s dog. A reward is coming, and we get a hit of dopamine. And we want more hits, damnit!
We check our phones on average every 15 minutes, and those that make the tech use psychological tricks to keep us checking in. We are getting our dopamine hits, but like drug addicts or gambling addicts, we are kinda playing into someone else’s trap. All this time spent checking in may affect our sleep, our relationships, our work, or even all the creative things we might do to have a flourishing existence. The long and short of it all is that psychologists tend to agree we should be checking in less, and tech producers need to start thinking about creating less powerful digital drugs.
That isn’t easy of course, as most people now need those beeps and likes, and need to feel they are not missing out on something. Experts even state that by putting your phone down, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as craving, restlessness, irritability or difficulty concentrating. Serious guides are out there to help you wean off your digital fix and spend more time in real life. You might want to turn off notifications, have a plan for the day and stick to it, take off the apps you don’t really need as that might lead to a kind of app surfing, much like when you watched three hours of mind-numbing cable TV.
In general, not many people are against these technologies, but we should be focusing on what we might call device “quality time”, educating ourselves and being productive and creative. We hope these few minutes have been educational for you.
So, do you think people are spending too much time on their smartphones? Let us know in the comments!