Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 23 July 2015

Our addiction to smart phones

Long life | 23 July 2015
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The smart phone is a wonderful thing. We are never out of touch anymore, neither with friends nor with the world at large. But increasingly we read of the harm that it is doing us. We are no longer its masters but its victims. It makes us tense, anxious and insecure. We respond with unnatural haste to every noise it emits; and even when it isn’t peeping or squeaking at us, we neurotically check it all the time for messages that might have crept in surreptitiously. Psychologists and sociologists are having a field day warning us of its dangers. Our obsessive phone checking is affecting our brains, they say. It blights our relationships and stops us concentrating on anything. And a mental disorder known as Fobo — Fear of Being Offline — turns some of us into petty criminals as we go around stealing other people’s phone chargers.

An academic study in America has found a link between compulsive phone use and depression, though I’m not quite sure if it’s a symptom or a cause of it. The survey found nevertheless that people diagnosed with depression spent four times longer using their smart phones each day than people who were not depressed. While some people cannot bear to be separated from their smart phones for a second, even sleeping with them under their pillows, others take offence if you fail to respond when they call you. Because it is so easy for anyone to stay in touch, they take it personally if their calls are not promptly answered. The smart phone has become a very divisive thing.

Dr Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, described in the Times as ‘one of the world’s leading authorities on our relationship with technology’, recommends fighting the control that the smart phone has over you by turning off all its alerts and notifications and allowing longer and longer gaps between the times you check it, rather like cutting down on smoking. ‘It’s a very difficult hole that we’ve dug for ourselves by letting this device control our lives,’ he says, ‘and it takes a concerted effort to divest that control, but it can be done.’

Smart phones, the internet and all the other marvels of modern information technology are immensely useful, but they are beginning to get me down as well. I feel quite lost without my mobile phone, but at the same time increasingly irritated by other people’s addiction to theirs. I also feel overwhelmed by emails. I don’t get many that matter much, but so many that don’t that it can take hours sorting them out, deleting them or filing them away in mailboxes. It is a most dispiriting way of spending time and an obstacle to doing anything interesting or enjoyable.

To begin with the internet was immensely exciting. I first started using it when I was a Washington correspondent for the newly founded Independent newspaper in the late 1980s, and it transformed the ease with which one could file one’s stories and communicate with editors in London. Then there was the world wide web, Google, Wikipedia and so on, which made checking and researching things seem like a doddle compared to the past. Internet banking and shopping have also been a boon.

But somehow the internet began to control and manipulate as well as serve. There are the social media, which I never use, but which ping information at me in a slightly menacing way, such as telling me it’s the birthday of somebody I barely know. I don’t know what it means when Facebook tells me I have received a ‘poke’ from someone, but it makes me most uneasy. Every so often my smart phone startles me with a sudden burst of music, which always turns out to herald an urgent news alert from Sky, though usually to a news item of no urgency at all.

And so it goes on. The internet and the web have increasingly become vehicles for self-promotion, public relations, advertising, and other such threats. They intrude on one’s privacy and disturb one’s peace of mind. Maybe there are ways of purging one’s online services of this kind of stuff, but who knows how to do it?