Wednesday 19 June 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'There are worse things in life than being a slave to your phone'

It's easy to blame technology for all our personal and work problems, but the real culprit is closer to home, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'Nothing suggests that people are becoming any less addicted to their smartphones and tablets.' Stock photo: PA
'Nothing suggests that people are becoming any less addicted to their smartphones and tablets.' Stock photo: PA

With stock markets taking fright, it's probably short-sighted to take delight in the plummeting value of Apple shares. No doubt the economic gods will punish us for such hubristic glee, but iPhones have become such a potent symbol of what's wrong with the world - from the screeching trivialisation of political debate, to the infantilisation of an entire generation of zombies addicted to the diversions offered by their mobile phones - that it's tempting to risk it all the same.

Sadly, nothing suggests that people are becoming any less addicted to their smartphones and tablets. It's just that, as Goldman Sachs concluded, Apple has over-priced its premium products, leading to a reduction in sales. Consumers are simply spending their money on different brands, making it far too early to see a temporary turn down in the profits of one greedy tech giant as a turning point.

Still, every little helps.

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It comes, after all, as one expert, Peter Cosgrove from something called the Future of Work Institute Ireland (nope, me neither), joins the chorus of voices warning that this reliance on electronic devices is impacting on people's social and employment skills.

"I worry," he says, "that phones are literally replacing every moment where you have to have a conversation."

Naturally, he has a new book out which seeks to address this problem at its source, by showing children that there is life beyond the screen; but Cosgrove admits that, until parents amend their own behaviour, it's hypocritical to expect the younger generation to resist the lure of technology.

Could it be, though, that we're all worrying about nothing? A review of the available research published last week found little evidence to back up claims that increased screen time has a "toxic" effect on mental and physical health. People who spend excessive amounts of time online are more likely to be depressed and obese, and that's particularly true for young women trapped in the rat maze of social media; but it's impossible to say if the online activity is causing these effects, or whether they're just coping mechanisms by those already suffering.

The wisest advice, whatever one's age, seems to be to restrict screen use before bedtime - not easy when there are so many Netflix shows to catch up on - but the quality of sleep is arguably impacted just as negatively by undue worry as it is by another episode of House Of Cards. Indeed, it could be that it's the worrying about the amount of time we spend looking at screens which is doing damage, rather than the screen time itself.

There's an unhealthy tendency these days to pathologise normal feelings like stress and loneliness and unhappiness and instantly offer "counselling", more often than not making them worse than they were to begin with.

How often do we hear someone complain, for example, that technology is enslaving them just because they got an email from the boss outside work hours?

That would sound insultingly self-aggrandising to those of previous generations who worked much harder than we do, and didn't even have Candy Crush to pass the time on the bus home.

Irish navvies who built the canals and railways that powered the industrial revolution would certainly find our hypersensitivity to stress bewildering. For every three miles of track laid during the construction of Britain's rail network, an average of three workers were killed. Even in less hazardous occupations, macroeconomic data shows that hours worked have fallen consistently over time.

The average worker did a 48-hour week in the early 1950s. Six-day weeks were common in retail. The notion of a "weekend" is relatively recent. Henry Ford only started closing his factories on Saturdays and Sundays in 1926, and there were fewer holidays. People seemed to cope without demanding therapy to deal with pressure.

The recession has undoubtedly introduced new elements of anxiety into the workplace, and the cost of housing is so exorbitant that it's often necessary to live much further away from one's place of work than previous generations, resulting in long commutes. It's also important to resist the myth that a worker who puts in hours of extra free labour is, by definition, a more valuable employee.

But it's also true that the one thing uniting all the studies showing workplace strains to be on the increase is that they're based on self-reporting rather than objective measures. If there's one thing we ought to have learned by now, it's that people rarely pass up a chance to complain, not least when there's high status attached in modern societies to grievance.

That's one of the curious turnarounds in recent times. It used to be that poorer people worked harder, whilst the middle classes had more leisure time. Now it's the other way round. Some professionals claim that the time they spend either available for work, or monitoring their work, is over 80 hours a week, but that doesn't mean they're actually working at all.

Might always being "on" simply be the price one pays these days for being an adult in gainful employment?

It's still better than the alternatives, either now or in the past. There's definitely an irony in the fact that people increasingly resent feeling a need to check screens in their "off" time, when looking at screens is how they choose to spend their own time anyway.

In both cases, Dr Max Davie, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, surely offered the best advice when responding to the latest studies into the effect of screen time on our well being.

"If there are problems and you're having difficulties, screen time can be a contributing factor," he cautioned; but "if you're doing OK and you've answered these questions of yourselves and you're happy, get on and live your life, and stop worrying".

Of course, that would also mean admitting that tech companies, such as Apple and Google and Facebook, may not be as evil as we might like to pretend, which would certainly be annoying; but in life, as in work, there's always a trade off to be made between short-term gratification and longer-term serenity.

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