Jesse Brown: Who says smart phone addiction is a bad thing? The case for constant connectivity

Jesse Brown: Who says smart phone addiction is a bad thing? The case for constant connectivity

Smart phones have invaded every aspect of our lives. We use them at the dinner table, in bed, even on the john. Some people call it an addiction. I call it progress

I lift phone to face hundreds of times a day. If smart phones are addictive, then I’m the Amy Winehouse of Android. My wife can’t stand it when I read the news on my phone at the breakfast table, an annoyance I’m certain she wouldn’t suffer were I reading the same article on newsprint. She gets irritated with me, and then I catch her doing the same thing a day later, and I make too big a deal about it. It’s time we gave each other a break.

All of us, that is. A growing body of research is revealing a global epidemic of smart phone dependency. Lookout, a mobile security firm, recently conducted a “mobile mindset” survey that asked more than 2,000 Americans if they checked their phones while on the toilet. Nearly 40 per cent of them did. More than half of those studied curled up in bed with their phones, 24 per cent used them while driving and nine per cent checked email while at church or other places of worship. Researchers also learned that 94 per cent of users felt “panicked,” “desperate” or “sick” when they misplaced their phones. Only six per cent said they felt “relieved.” Another widely reported survey of 1,000 employed smart phone users found that 80 per cent of them continued to check in with work via their phones after leaving the office; 57 per cent did so during family outings, and 25 per cent admitted to arguing with their spouses about these phone habits. A cheeky survey asked Americans which they would rather go without for a week if they had to choose: smart phones or sex? Thirty-three per cent said sex.

Clearly, we smart phone users have serious problems. That’s the conclusion these polls were all designed to draw. Implicit in the question “Do you take your smart phone to the toilet with you?” is the assumption that you’re probably such a pathetic data junkie that you do. Also baked in is a prejudicial sneer that to do so is vulgar and wrong. We have accepted the equation that connectivity equals vice, half-jokingly describing ourselves as addicted to our devices, as we salivate over announcements about the next Apple handset. Maybe the problem is not our smart phones, but our tortured feelings about them.

We love our phones for making our jobs easier, yet we resent them for erasing the line between work and home. We adore them for connecting us with our friends around the world, yet we despise them for distracting us from the people right in front of us. We rely on them to amuse our children and buy us a few minutes’ peace, yet we fret over the effect they may have on our kids’ brains. Above all else, we delight in the sensual pleasures they provide, the satisfying beeps and buzzes that tell us (and those around us) that we are important and wanted, but we’re terrified we can’t live without this constant stream of reassuring stimulation.

We can, of course, but why should we? Any household that has set arbitrary rules around phone use (“never at the dinner table,” “not at the cottage,” “not on Saturdays, starting next Saturday”) knows that life without smart phones is possible, but unpleasant. We shun our phones in an effort to decrease stress, but what’s more stressful than being away from your phone? British researchers coined the term “nomophobia” (no-mobile-phone-phobia) in 2008 as a joke. Today, rehab for nomophobia is offered at California’s Morningside addiction recovery centre.

With all due respect to California’s struggling nomophobes (and with similar sympathy for the chocoholics of the world), maybe it’s time to revisit the difference between addiction and dependency. Heroin addicts can die without heroin. Take away my phone, and I’ll just get bored. I’ll also be less informed, less capable and less productive.

Am I dependent on my phone? Absolutely. I’m also dependent on toilets and light bulbs. I can live without them, just as I can live without my Android, but it would suck. Giving up my phone because it’s so useful would be like abandoning my car for going fast. It’s just doing its job.

To cast our smart phones as insidious devices that have pulled us from our “real” lives and hooked us on virtual trivialities and vanities is to imagine a pre–smart phone state of purity that never really existed. Before my smart phone, I spent much of my time away from work watching television. Was that more “real” than having a rapid-fire political discussion with dozens of interesting people (and hundreds of dull ones) on Twitter? Such nourishing chatter is kind of a part of my work and kind of not, and I can abide that complexity. It beats constantly quarantining the professional from the personal, a full-time job unto itself. Little wonder that people obsessed with enforcing the holy “work-life balance” are always so tired and frustrated.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive. Work isn’t some dead zone that life waits each day for us to emerge from. Over the past 30 years, the number of self-employed Canadians has been rising, just as industrial jobs have been disappearing. Since the 2008 downturn, more and more of us have turned to the “gig economy” and those still on payrolls have been spending more time working from home or telecommuting. Some of us have chosen to jump from the traditional 9-to-5 workday and others were pushed, but either way, the era of clock punching is waning. Many of us are paid not for our hours but for assuming responsibilities. That means we increasingly expect flexibility to drive our kids to daycare, take long lunches, surf the web aimlessly and text our friends at 2 p.m. But it also requires us to be on call at 8 p.m. Work doesn’t just happen at work anymore, and by the same token, home isn’t (let’s hope) some fortress of wholesome family solitude that must be protected from outside communication. The pressure to impose some romantic notion of pre-tech “family time” forces parents into conflict and self-loathing. In between policing our kids’ screen time, we guiltily sneak email in the bathroom.

Smart phones don’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Yes, the pull of our glowing rectangles is hard to resist, but the challenge is not to resist them, it’s to reconcile constant digital connectivity with being human. Needing to have my phone on hand is okay. Responding to every tweet and text the second it arrives is not. Luckily, digital media is the most malleable technology we’ve ever invented. We can set up our phones to put most incoming email on the shelf to be read later, while giving us a buzz if something comes from our boss or is marked urgent. We can block numbers and send auto-replies. We can use apps that make life with smart phones less intrusive, and if we can’t find an app to do something we need, we can create an app that does.

Technology is something that we make and use, not something that’s done to us. For every detached father who uses his phone as a means of mentally abandoning his family, there’s a resourceful kid who uses hers to explore worlds and people outside of her unhappy home. A heartfelt text can be more meaningful than a face-to-face conversation. And if you neglect your kid for hours as he watches cartoons on your iPhone, instead of, say, making cartoons with your kid on your iPhone,
don’t blame the gadget.