The smartphone has shrunk our world, brought us closer to friends and family, hugely increased our access to knowledge, and provided a tool to increase our productivity.
But there are negatives to this remarkable device. As time spent online has gone up, so have anxiety, depression and suicide rates, particularly among the young. Childline (the telephone counselling service for children) reports that in the UK, more children than ever are receiving counselling for loneliness due to parents being distracted by smartphones.
When parents are present but their attention is elsewhere, the message to the child is, “My phone is more important than you are.”
Prof Sherry Turkle, a US-based expert in social connectivity, says: “When we replace or interrupt face-to-face conversation with electronic communication, the quality of our interaction, and the development of empathy, friendship and intimacy suffer.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Suzana Flores, also from the US, reminds us that people communicate through all five senses.
“We need the warmth of a human embrace and smell of roses,” she writes. “We benefit emotionally from spending physical time with loved ones. We can never gain this through digital communication.”
To make matters worse, the dominance of negative news on social media platforms creates pessimism. This is exacerbated by the ease with which fake news is spread on social media.
As noted, if used correctly, digital media can increase personal productivity; but perversely, if misused, it reduces productivity and mental capacity. The constant distraction of smartphone messages greatly extend the time taken to undertake any task demanding focus.
The average attention span of addicted smartphone users has been found to drop appreciably over time, and their mental lethargy rises as they depend more and more on their smartphones.
Research assessing the effect of smartphones has repeatedly found that addicted users never relax completely and sleep badly. And tired people are unproductive.
The Social Dilemma, a 2020 American docudrama directed by Jeff Orlowski, provides a disturbing picture of how the interests of social media users are tracked and manipulated to get them to read advertisements.
After all, the real clients of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are not the users, but the advertisers. It is their money that has built these social media giants into some of the largest companies the world has ever seen.
The message from The Social Dilemma is simple: reflect on how you spend your time; maintain ‘digital hygiene’ by turning off notifications; and keep your phone out of the bedroom.
Put down your phone and spend time on activities that nourish you: take a stroll with your kids, visit a gallery, or play with your dog.
Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.