Thursday 17 January 2019

Another Angle: You can't be 'addicted' to a smartphone - but overuse is big issue

If someone ignores you in favour of their phone, that’s not addiction – that’s plain bad manners. Stock image
If someone ignores you in favour of their phone, that’s not addiction – that’s plain bad manners. Stock image
Eoin Whelan

Eoin Whelan

Are we really addicted to our smartphones? Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, according to Mandy Saligari, director of the Harley Street Addiction Clinic in London.

With angsty neologisms such as nomophobia, phubbing, and ringexity entering the popular lexicon, surely we are in the grips of a smartphone addiction epidemic. The road to Damascus must have been rerouted through Silicon Valley with the number of tech superstars now intent on freeing us from our digital overlords - the companies that made them millionaires. Even Apple is feeling the heat, with major shareholders now laying down a public challenge for the tech icon to combat smartphone addiction.

But is smartphone addiction real? The answer is no. That's according to fifth edition of the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders', also known as the 'clinician's bible'.

Excessive use of smartphones might be a problem, but it's certainly not an addiction. An activity is considered addictive if it comprises of two elements. Firstly, it endows pleasure in the short-term, such as ingesting a substance like alcohol or engaging in a thrill behaviour like gambling. Secondly, it leads to long-term physical and psychological damage if repeated frequently. Recent research reveals significant maladaptive practices associated with smartphone use, but widespread accounts of severe mental dysfunction are simply not evident. So if someone ignores you in favour of their phone, that's not addiction - that's plain bad manners.

It's important we don't label problematic smartphone use as an addiction. To do so would only diminish real addictions such as alcoholism or gambling.

Also, our own personal responsibility conveniently takes a backseat when we bestow irresistible properties on modern technology. This was the finding of a recent study from Stanford University which found workers tend to attribute rising stress levels to the volume of email received, even when their own poor time-management was a more obvious culprit.

Let's consider the scientific evidence about our susceptibility to the charms of the smartphone. A relatively small proportion of people can be considered problematic users, that is, those who realise their phone use is adversely affecting their lives. A 2017 study of the Spanish population revealed only 5pc fitting the problematic user profile. But to underscore the nefarious effects of smartphone, 15pc of Spaniards are in the 'at risk' category. Smartphone usage decreases with age, with the most prolific users under 20.

Worryingly, averaging the data from a number of international studies suggests 14-year-olds are the Kenyan runners in the smartphone marathon.

If you want evidence that men truly are from Venus and women from Mars, look no further than their smartphone behaviours.

Practically all studies indicate females displaying higher levels of dependence and problematic use compared to males. Females tend to use their phones to maintain social relationships with texting and instant messaging their favoured applications.

Males may use phones less intensely but are more likely to use them in risky situations, such as while driving or conducting a hazardous work activity, and also display a greater fondness for gaming apps.

In terms of personality traits, it seems extroverts and introverts swim side by side in the smartphone-infested waters. Maintaining and extending their social network is the lure for the extrovert, while the false promise of compensating for lack of social skills hooks the introvert.

So why are some people are more disposed to smartphone abuse? My colleagues and I have also conducted a number of studies to address this question. Regardless of age, or gender, or economic status, two traits stand out. Those who are impulsive and are prone to boredom, are far more likely to succumb to the Pied Piper tunes of the smartphone. But this does not mean being impulsive and prone to boredom are bad things.

We just could not function on a day-to-day basis without making quick impulsive judgements.

In terms of the smartphone, problems only emerge when we fail to control our impulsiveness and habitually swipe the black mirror. Likewise, evolutionary biologists believe that without boredom, mankind could never have advanced further than other species. The avoidance of boredom is what sparked our ancestors to rub sticks together to create fire for warmth or the wheel to carry heavy loads. But instead of being creative or tackling problems in our times of boredom, many of us now seek stimulation from a battery-powered assortment of aluminium, glass, copper, and silicon.

Implying similarities between smartphone obsession and cocaine may make a great soundbite, but it is erroneous. It would be more accurate to compare phone obsession to food. Like eating, most of us have to use our smartphone everyday. But food and technology can be abused. Overeating significantly harms our health so we have to make good choices about portion sizes, food diversity, and regularity of consumption. And we know some foods are laced with sugars and salt to keep us eating. So the next time you are drawn to your smartphone, consider if it is providing you with empty calories that offer no nutritional benefit.

Dr Eoin Whelan is head of the Business Information Systems Group at the JE Cairnes School of Business & Economics in NUI Galway

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