A recent RISE panel addressed smartphone addiction. There’s no easy solution, but some users are already voluntarily unplugging – and loving it.
Earlier this month we published a column by Mr Tony Poulos about the French government’s move to ban smartphones from schools as a “detox” measure against phone addiction among young people, which is increasingly perceived as a serious problem worldwide.
As it happens, the same day we ran that column, I attended a panel session at this year’s RISE conference on the topic of tech addiction and what to do about it. Tellingly, the one thing that wasn’t up for debate was whether smartphones and digital content such as social media and games are addictive. They’re not only addictive, but intentionally designed to be addictive, because the business model is all about engagement.
HTC chief crypto officer Phil Chen admitted as much, but said that it’s not up to tech companies to take responsibility for it. “When it comes down to what ought we do about this technology addiction, I don’t think it’s a tech question – it’s a philosophical question.”
Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, disagreed, saying that tech companies could take certain measures such as making it easy to switch to greyscale screens “so it doesn’t look like a candy store”.
Also, because some apps are more addictive than others, device makers could stop putting high-engagement apps like Facebook and Twitter on the homescreen, and put utility apps like Google search and Uber there instead. “You’re not going to open Uber and look at it, open and close it and stuff like that.”
The health risks of smartphone addiction
Whatever action tech companies take, Swisher said that the smartphone/content industry may face an eventual crackdown similar to the ones that governments brought against tobacco companies and soda makers because their products were linked to health issues (lung cancer and obesity, respectively).
The difference is that the harmful effects of smartphones and social media aren’t as readily apparent, she said. “With tech, the health risks are not quite so obvious, because you don’t become obese or die of lung cancer and create a real drain on the health system, which is so visible.”
But that’s not to say there are no health risks with smartphone addiction. One serious physical health risk is sleep deprivation, said Meeta Singh, chief of sleep medicine at Henry Ford Sleep Laboratory.
“Every phone has a backlit LED screen, and that does a number on your circadian clock, because it actively suppresses melatonin, which is the hormone that tells you that you’re ready to sleep,” Singh said. “Your circadian clock is just like a master conductor – you influence biological clocks in every cell in your body, and every function has a circadian rhythm. So if you mess up your master clock, then you’re basically messing everything else up.”
As for what action to take, Singh said that any such action should keep in mind that not all content is addictive, and not all people who use high-engagement apps become addicts, at least in the clinical sense.
“The ultimate reason why you’re addicted to it is because of whatever your underlying reason is, which is that you’re using the tech to mask something, and that needs to be addressed,” she said.
That’s why legislation by itself won’t solve the problem, she added: “When it comes to addicting behaviors, I think it’s as a society as a whole who has a role.”
From FOMO to JOMO
There are signs that’s already starting to happen. By now you’ve probably heard of FOMO (fear of missing out), the psychological phenomenon that ostensibly drives social media addiction. Now, reportedly, we’re starting to see the emergence of JOMO – the joy of missing out.
Put simply, a small but growing number of people are discovering that it’s okay to disconnect from the digi-social reality bubble – not permanently, of course, but at least for awhile, whether it’s a few hours a day or a couple of weeks at a time, perhaps via a “digital detox” holiday. (This NYT article offers some tips for how to go about putting a little JOMO in your life.
This doesn’t have to be bad news for the digital tech industry. In fact, in the last couple of months, Google and Apple announced new tools to help people balance their digital life and real life – mainly by cutting down on notifications and showing end users just how much time they spend on a given app.
Which is nice, although never underestimate the ingenuity of users (and especially addicts) to find ways to render those tools pointless. Also, it’s worth remembering those tools will be in direct competition with Google and Apple’s own R&D efforts to increase engagement.
Still, you gotta start somewhere. If nothing else, it’s a good sign that some users are actively looking for ways to unplug. As with any addiction, admitting you need help is the first step to recovery.