Our dumb relationship with smartphones

Emma Leaning
You take your phone to the bathroom, and it’s the first thing you check when you wake up. Me too. Why can’t we lay these devices down?
Emma Leaning

I lost my mobile phone. Well, I say I lost it — it was in my back pocket. But the time between not knowing where it was and finding it felt longer than “Oppenheimer.”

Who might have text? What had I missed and how many likes did I get on X?

Our dumb relationship with smartphones
Hu Jun / SHINE

Don’t lie. You take your phone to the bathroom, and it’s the first thing you check when you wake up. How have circuit boards, memory chips, buttons and switches taken over modern life? Last week, my average screen time was seven hours and 34 minutes per day. I was mortified. But before you judge me, check your own. Why can’t we lay these devices down?

I worship my phone. It literally gets me around town. So, there’s no judgment here, merely a question about how far we’ve come and what it means.

The first publicly available handheld mobile phone was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, released in the United States in 1983. It weighed more than 1.1 kilograms and was the size of a brick. The phone had limited functionality compared with today’s smartphones. Its primary purpose being to make and receive phone calls, but you couldn’t text because SMS technology hadn’t been developed.

Comparing the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X to the latest iPhone is like comparing a horse-drawn carriage to a sports car. The advances in technology are astounding, and phones have transcended their original purpose to become Swiss Army knives of functionality. They are cameras, music players, GPS devises and wallets.

So, what does this mean?

Over-reliance on mobile phones has plenty of pitfalls. There are privacy concerns, sleep deprivation, distraction and dependency as people rely heavily on devises making it difficult to function without them.

A concern that stands out to me is our constant connection to what’s going on in the world. Before the advent of smartphones, people’s access to news was limited. They relied on traditional sources like newspapers, television and radio to stay informed about local, national and global events.

Today, we have an endless supply of information in our back pocket. With a click of a button, we can instantly access news articles, social media posts and live updates from around the world. While this unlimited access has its benefits, it also has plenty of drawbacks. There’s the spread of misinformation, sensationalism and the echo chamber effect where people are exposed to viewpoints that reinforce their existing beliefs.

And today even the most distant tragedies are at our fingertips.

Give me a macabre moment. Say an unthinkable incident occurs. I don’t know a girl gets attacked by a crocodile in a remote location in America. In the past, only a few people would have been aware, allowing them to process the news in their own time. But in the digital age, a video would be uploaded to YouTube within minutes, exposing millions of people around the world to the harrowing truth. And that’s one incident. There are plenty more like it every day, and we’re not equipped to handle this constant barrage of information or exposure to tragedy.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day led to a significant improvement in well-being. Another study in the same year, published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that problematic smartphone use is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety and stress.

You cannot carry the weight of the world. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care or be informed, but we must recognize what’s at stake. I’ve scrolled past difficult stories. Not because I’m heartless, but sometimes you just need to switch off and see a story about Taylor Swift grocery shopping. With smartphones bombarding us with a constant stream of news and updates from all corners of the globe, we’re exposed to a seemingly endless array of misery.

And in the context of social media, it’s easy to see how we become desensitized. It’s called compassion fatigue. It doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you human. We’re wired to protect ourselves from emotional overload.

This is not an anti-social media rant. I’ve made some of my closest friends online and will be forever grateful for them. Platforms allow us to keep in touch with loved ones in our native homes and entertain us with cat videos at 3am when we can’t sleep. But while caring and engaging is a fundamental part of humanity, there has to be a balance.

As the conversation around technology continues to evolve, so must we. Think of your smartphone like a high-tech escort, there when you want it and gone when you don’t. Avoid becoming overly attached to a relationship that can only grant you so much fun or validation. Enjoy your phone on your terms. It’s time we take control and ensure smartphones remain valuable tools rather than masters of our attention.

So go ahead. Check your average screen time, I dare you.

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