Look at Life: Mobile Phones

2nd August 2019

Are We a Nation of serial Scrollers?

By Lisa Botwright

I’d like to explain that I’m not addicted to my mobile phone. Definitely not. Categorically not.

Other people are. My two teenagers, for example. Separating them from their devices is like trying to keep a magnet away from metal. When I say they should put them down (during meals mainly) their discomfort is barely held in check; as soon as I give the say-so, phone and child swiftly and gratefully reunite.

But mobile phone dependence isn’t just an issue amongst the younger generation. My husband is hardly ever separated from his: by obligation during the day (for work) and by choice every evening. ‘Can’t you put that down and watch tv with me?,’ I sigh in exasperation, as he fiddles mindlessly with his favourite puzzle app.

He’s not alone in his preoccupation. A UK survey by YouGov revealed that 54% of the population said they couldn’t live without their phones. Personally, I’m surprised the number isn’t higher.

People barely look up from their devices anywhere any more. You just have to travel by train to observe every head down: a sea of people absorbed in their screens. Commuters have always sought distraction, though; it’s hardly different from reading the paper.

It’s more problematic when you’re walking down a busy high street and you continually collide with people similarly engrossed – a problem so universal that a popular tourist destination in Chongqing, China, has created a ‘mobile phone lane’: a portion of its pavement exclusively for phone users too entranced to avoid other pedestrians.

Smartphones have become everything to us, in such a short space of time – a primary source of entertainment, news, information, social interaction and communication (although using them to make telephone calls and actually speak to someone is one of the least activated options, according to research). They’ve also become the grown-up equivalent of a comfort blanket.

This shift in society hasn’t gone unnoticed, and there are urgent calls by campaigners for us to reduce time spent on our phones. “Raising awareness of one’s own smartphone use can be the first step in the right direction,” says Dr Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University. “Often, individuals are not aware of the frequency and extent of use.”

Writers have also been moved to satirise society’s collective unease over our technological over-consumption. One episode of British science fiction tv series Black Mirror tells of a ‘near-future’ society where people record every interaction using eye implants and mobile devices, and then rate the other person on a five-star scale. A individual’s rating almost entirely contributes to their socioeconomic status and determines where they’re allowed to work, go on holiday, or even live.

More scarily, it’s fact – not fiction – that smartphones are actively designed to be addictive. Dopamine, the same chemical responsible for drug and alcohol dependency, floods our neurons every time we see a new notification. Sean Parker, the 39-year-old founding president of Facebook, even admitted that it was set up not to unite, but to distract us. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Significantly, most Silicon Valley parents with young children ban tech use.

It’s for all these reasons that I like to distance myself from my phone. I read a book at bedtime, rather than scroll through Twitter. I look out of the window and daydream when I’m on the train. I ring-fence phone-free family time. I was feeling quite smug about it all, to be honest.

Until one day, when I left my phone at work. I didn’t realise until I got home… I rummaged through my handbag; I checked my car, looking under the seats, calmly at first, then more urgently. My stomach lurched; I was tense and anxious; I was pretty much working myself up to full-on panic mode.

‘I can do this’, I steeled. Having managed my first three decades on this planet without a smartphone, one evening wasn’t going to hurt me.

But I was kidding myself.

I lurched from one inconvenience to another. I couldn’t listen to music while I was making dinner. (I use a streaming app, and was shocked to realise that I don’t have any other means of listening to music in the house any more).

I couldn’t send my mum a quick message to ask how she’d got on at her coffee morning. I had to – gasp – phone her using the landline. I didn’t have an alarm for the next morning, nor did I have my diary. And so on. I felt completely rudderless.

Still, I should clarify that I’m definitely not addicted: not at all… Well, maybe just a little.

Find Your Local