- I am a middle-of-the-night smartphone user.
- I know I’m not alone. The tech industry is accused these days of deliberate “brain hacking” to encourage so-called “app addiction.”
- Are those accusations just fear and hyperbole? Or are there true dangers to the way we use our devices?
- Business Insider is launching a new series to investigate.
There was a time not long ago when I considered it crazy to keep a smartphone by the bedside.
My phone charger was on a shelf by the front door. Every night, I would dutifully plug in the device, tucking it in bed for the night, before heading to my room.
I remember this detail because one day my wife began bringing her phone to bed and it bothered me. The glowing gadget seemed like an unnecessary and unwelcome intruder in our sanctuary, competing for attention and disrupting the natural order of things. Why have a phone when you could be watching TV or reading a book? And was it healthy to have a wireless device so close by?
But that was about three years ago. At some point between then and now, I dropped my objections and moved my iPhone’s white power cord to the bedside table. It made a lot of sense. The phone could charge overnight and be within reach in case I received a late-night message; in the morning, I could get a head start scanning work emails. The iPhone’s alarm clock function even replaced the Sony clock radio in our room.
Whether at the dinner table or in the driver’s seat, everyone I know struggles to detach themselves from a device that didn’t even exist 11 years ago.
Then one night, I woke up in the wee hours and couldn’t fall back asleep. Without giving it much thought, I began flicking through the device, skimming news headlines and social media posts. Those midnight digital snacks became increasingly frequent; so much so that I even started to wonder if I was purposefully waking up at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning to get updates on the latest Trump controversy, on some distant flood or volcano, or just to check if a friend living in another time zone had posted something new.
Is this a bad thing? If the phone wasn’t there, would I have just laid there, awake for an hour anyway until falling back asleep? Or was this new habit actually causing some unknown damage to my sleep schedule and, maybe, my psyche?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I do know that the allure of the phone in my everyday life, and in the lives of others, is incredibly powerful. Whether at the dinner table or in the driver’s seat, everyone I know struggles to detach themselves from a device that didn’t even exist 11 years ago.
That’s remarkable. And a bit terrifying.
Keep calm, but don’t just carry on
It’s easy to freak out about new technology. People have been worrying about shortened attention spans since the day MTV went on the air, and probably even before that. When radios proliferated in the 1920s, there were concerns that it was dumbing down children’s intellectual abilities.
Even before television and radio, people fretted about the health impact of new technologies, often envisioning truly bizarre effects. When the railways were being built, some people apparently worried that women should not travel on trains, convinced that speeds of more than 50 miles per hour could cause the uterus to fly out of the body.
Any new technology that changes our relationships – how we spend our time, our perceptions of space or the ways we interact with each other – is likely to trigger a bout of social anxiety, Genevieve Bell, a professor at Australia’s National University College of Engineering and Computer Science, told the Wall Street Journal a few years ago.
The smartphone certainly checks all those boxes.
But before we simply dismiss any concerns over the impacts of smartphones as unjustified panic, we need to take a closer look.
Because, unlike other new technologies, it is becoming increasingly clear that at least some part of our obsessive smartphone use is no accident.
The makers of our beloved gadgets and apps operate on business models that, directly or indirectly, depend on our constant use – and they design their wares accordingly.
For instance, we all love getting a “like” on a social media post for the same reason a casino visitor enjoys seeing three watermelons align on a slot machine: it’s a variable reward, one of the most powerful concepts in the field of behavioural psychology.
Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-forming Products” – the bible of Silicon Valley product managers – strenuously objects to the notion that smartphones are “addictive” (it’s only an addiction if it overcomes your willpower to stop) and argues for designing habit-forming products that are “ethical.”
But the reality is that the products that have captivated our attention are made by profit-driven corporations, and ethics are only valued until they conflict with fiduciary duty.
The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Apple – the pillars of the smartphone age – are all obligated to give Wall Street a progress report on their businesses every 90 days. And whether progress is measured by the amount of time users spend on an app or the sales of devices for using these apps, Wall Street only wants one thing: more.
The consequences of our new screen habit
We’re still years away from understanding the consequences of our collective screen habit. The generation growing up today will never know what it was like to live without smartphones, just as most adults today can’t fathom a world without television, aeroplanes and automobiles.
That’s why Business Insider is taking this moment to explore how mobile phones and apps are changing our lives, how children and parents are adapting to the new reality and how the tech industry is coming to terms with its own role in all of this.
In a series of stories over the coming weeks and months, Business Insider’s “Your Brain on Apps” project will try to help us understand the world we’re rushing into and the one we’re leaving behind.
Is our excessive use of smartphones a cause for alarm? Or is it simply a natural result of really good technology that drives progress? Do we know the things we may be sacrificing in the name of that progress?
It’s a debate that’s becoming more important every day. The rapid pace of innovation means our gadgets and apps are only going to become more appealing and irresistible. Now is a smart time to read and think about it – even if you’re doing it on your phone at 2 a.m.
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