October 24, 2021

In today’s society, there is no denying the fact that the lives we live are  consumed by everything digital. Designed to keep us connected, smartphones have become an indispensable part of our lives. The truth is, the more technology we seem to invent, the more disconnected we seem to become. It’s very convenient to have the ability to connect with someone across the world in a matter of seconds, but in the meantime we tend to lose touch with the people sitting in the same room.

Albert Einstein once said “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

What Einstein said rings true today. Most people don’t know how to function daily without a cellphone. In order to understand the complexity of technology now, we have to know where it started.

While Italian innovator Antonio Meucci is credited with inventing the first basic phone in 1849, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first U.S. patent for the device in 1876. In 1877 the first telephone line was constructed and three years later almost 49,000 telephones were in use. That was just the beginning of a long line of inventions.

Many advancements were made in the following decades like the dial phone and the portable car phone, but nothing shocked the world like the first-ever completely mobile phone which was invented in 1973 by Martin Cooper of Motorola. In 1983 the DynaTAC 8000x became the first commercially available mobile, selling for $3,995 and weighing in at 2.4 pounds. From that point on there have been a massive number of mobile phones created with all different types of designs and functions. Today, the average cellphone retails between $300 and $1,300.

Prior to this invention, it would have taken a lot of effort to stay in contact with someone from another city or country. Now this device has become essential.

Cellphones and computers are essential in today’s world. Photo by Jessica Towriss / Spoke News

According to a study by Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner and Anthony Almond in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, cellphones have become addictive and many people are highly dependant on them. In most cases addictive cellphone behaviour has people using their phone to relieve discomfort rather than achieve pleasure.

We have become slaves to technology, walking around with our faces constantly shoved in our phones, completely oblivious to the world surrounding us. You might disagree, saying cellphones aren’t addictive. However, why then is our phone the first thing we check in the morning? Why do we feel the need to constantly look at it, even when it hasn’t made a “bing?”

This device that was designed to keep us social does anything but that. According to CNBC, six billion smart phones will be in use by next year. The scary part is the world’s population is 7.7 billion. The number is shockingly high considering fewer than four billion people have access to a working toilet. We are a nation of smartphone addicts.

With cellphone addiction comes a number of characteristics including problems with intolerance, withdrawal and poor mental and physical health that can affect our everyday relationships and lives. Nomophobia is the irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason. Ringxiety and textaphrenia are the belief that you have received a message on your device when you haven’t and the need to constantly check your phone. Phantom vibration syndrome is when you can physically feel your phone vibrating when it isn’t or even when you do not have it with you. All these syndromes occur in everyday normal individuals so it raises the concern that cellphone addiction is more common than we know. With new statistics and studies popping up everyday, why aren’t we taking cellphone addiction more seriously?

Dakota Pederson, of Hanover, Ont., bought her first cellphone at the age of 14 when she had the financial means to pay for it herself. Pederson has lived on her own since she was 14 and mainly used her phone as a means to get help if need be. Now 21 years old, Pederson said as a teenager her cellphone was her lifeline and even admits that she quickly became addicted to the multifunctionality of the device.

Suffering from bulimia, Pederson spent a couple of weeksin the hospital. During that time access to her phone was not allowed. Needless to say, it was an experience she did not like.

“While I was there it was embarrassingly difficult to not have my device. I remember the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and even bawled my eyes out when the hospital staff took it away. They said I was being ridiculous, but I couldn’t help but panic. At that point in my life it was kind of a lifeline,” she said. “I knew I was addicted when I could feel it vibrating in my pocket or on the couch beside me when it wasn’t there. As someone who suffers from anxiety, I definitely used my cellphone to avoid eye contact or conversation and without it such things were not as easily dismissed.”

We have all heard of phantom limb syndrome, where after someone loses a limb they experience symptoms and even pain despite the limb no longer being there. The same type of phenomenon happens with cellphones. It’s called phantom vibration syndrome. This happens when an addiction has gotten so bad that a person experiences auditory and tactile hallucinations, yet most continue to indulge in the behaviour anyhow.

According to a report by The Statistics Portal, the average person will check their cellphone 47 times per day, which amounts to 17,155 times per year and the average user will tap, swipe and click their phone 2,617 times daily.

“When I was a teenager I could not go a day without my phone, it was my escape. I realize now that I was so dependant on my phone that I felt completely helpless without it,” said Pederson. “If I was ever in a room full of people I would pull out my phone and scroll through it aimlessly just so I wouldn’t have to talk to people. I think cellphones do have a negative impact on our society in a social sense, yet can be very useful for general information, navigation and, of course, emergency situations.”

With children and teens now growing up in the digital age, seeing them outside can be a rare sight. Rather than building forts or coming up with new games to play, young people would rather show you the newest meme or something on their phone. Between smartphones, televisions, tablets and even smartwatches, many people have hours and hours of screen time each day.

According to a report by The Statistics Portal, 71 per cent of teenagers who spend five hours a day on their phone are more likely to have suicide risk factors than those who only spend one hour a day on their phone and this number may rise since kids as young as four are now being given their own cellphone or tablet. Parents who think this technology will distract their children long enough for them to do the dishes don’t realize the potential risks associated with it.

A main difference from previous generations who did not have any technology to now is how it has affected our youth.  According to a report by Jim Taylor in Psychology Today, children who spend most of their time online tend to have less of an ability to focus and find it more difficult to pick up on social cues which are important in developing meaningful relationships.

Amanda Nosko, a cyberpsychology teacher at Conestoga College, received her PHD in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University and has always been interested in the psychology behind our interactions with technology.

“There was a study run by The National Institute of Health in the United States and it was longitudinal over a 10-year period,” said Nosko. “It looked at kids who had more than seven hours of screen time and what they found over time was that areas of the cortex were actually thinning. Areas that have to do with executive functioning, planning and emotional regulation as well as all of those higher order complex thinking, they have found that area of the brain is changing. So there are physiological effects from using our devices.”

Technology continues to improve, yet it continues to have unintended negative effects. With smartphones’ multifunctionality, it has become easily integrated into our everyday lives. Calendars, text messages, alarms and navigation are just some of the apps installed on smartphones that have people unable to live a day without them. According to a report by Aaron Smith from the Pew Research Centre of Internet and Technology, 46 per cent of cellphone users felt they could not live without their phone and 30 per cent reported they felt their smartphone was a “leash” restricting their freedom.

“Everything about a cellphone or any other mobile device is designed to have a strategic and well thought out plan that they know exactly what features and functions are going to be the most addictive for individuals. Straight down to the little blinking light or the notification sounds. It is instantaneous and everything is at your fingertips,” said Nosko. “The fact that people can’t drive without checking their phone shows addiction. People are so worried about checking their phone while driving yet are aware of the dangers and continue to do it. Some don’t realize the implications of that type of use and the negative outcomes that can happen.”

Another harsh reality of addiction is knowing the consequences, yet still engaging in the behaviour. Even with the new implementation of increased consequences and fines in Ontario, texting and driving still remains a safety issue on roadways. Fines now range from $490 to $1,000 and even include gaining demerit points, yet individuals still indulge in their cellphones’ content behind the wheel. According to an article on ThinkInsure, in Ontario there are 330,000 injuries each year due to distracted driving and an estimated 11 teens die every day.

Texting and driving puts the driver, passengers, other motorists and pedestrians at risk. Photo by Buffalo’s Fire

“Any time that a driver’s attention is not on the roadway there is a risk to other motorists and pedestrians,” said André Johnson, a constable with the Waterloo Regional Police. “In the time span from 2013 to 2017, the Waterloo Regional Police issued 1,707 charges for distracted driving involving a cellphone compared to 838 impaired driving-related charges. The truth is, both offences are dangerous and could cause great risk to the driver and other motorists, but some people believe that they can multitask and don’t realize the potential consequences.”

With more people driving distracted than driving impaired, it raises the concern that there should be a lot more education surrounding texting and driving. According to an article on Thinkinsure, in Ontario 46 per cent of high school drivers in Ontario are continuing to text and drive, despite the well-known dangers of the illegal activity. According to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, more than 33 per cent of students in high school have admitted to texting while driving.

“As officers we are committed to ensuring our roadways are safe. We are continuing to conduct distracted driving enforcement and educate the public on distracted driving and the dangers of cellphone use while operating a vehicle,” said Johnson. “New laws for distracted driving came into effect in January so our hope is that the change in fines and penalties will reinforce how serious the offence of distracted driving is, and together with more education awareness, we will see less distracted driving.”

There are many reasons as to why we have become so reliant on our devices in the first places. Contributing factors include school and work. In addiction keeping in contact with friends and family plays a role. Whether it is emailing a colleague, submitting an assignment or checking in with a family member, we have willingly subjected ourselves to this addictive behaviour. Other detrimental effects of spending too much time on these devices are higher risks of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

“Take young women and Instagram for example. Constantly having to see a thread of women with perfect bodies and perfect lives, young girls are doing social comparisons to something that isn’t realistic to most. They are going to feel depressed, anxious and have low self-esteem,” said Nosko. “Kids, in general, can’t get away from it. When I was growing up, if I was bullied I had a solace at home. I could shut the door and get away from that and nowadays kids can’t do that. They are under constant scrutiny and exposed to this kind of stuff. I think it creates conditions for a lot of really mentally unwell young people if they aren’t careful.”

What the typical cellphone user might not understand is that your phone has been designed to keep you hooked, with functions and features specifically for you.

Manufacturers of smartphones know what platforms and features to keep you engaged.

When push notifications were first introduced in 2003 for emails it was seen as a way for people to check their phone less. People could easily see emails as they came in rather than repeatedly opening their phone to check the inbox. Now, push notifications from every app are designed to capture your attention, including by using certain colours and sounds.

If you think about it, there is a correlation between slot machines and phones. Slot machines are three to four times more addictive than any other form of gambling. Some apps replicate the process of pulling a slot machine lever with the “pull to refresh” feature. That is definitely not a coincidence, but rather a strategic design choice. The pull action on a smartphone provides the illusion of control over the constant updating of content for your disposal.

Red notification bubbles on message apps attract attention. Photo by Jessica Towriss / Spoke News

Many apps are also designed to be brighter, bolder and warmer in order to catch your attention. According to an article from ChangingMinds, humans’ eyes are sensitive to warm colours and the colour red is often used more to grab people’s attention. This is why notification bubbles on some phones for apps are red and not light blue.

Another addictive function on phones is infinite scrolling which continuously loads new material so there is no endpoint of content for you to view. Video autoplay like Netflix works in a very similar way. Apps are designed this way to create an effortless experience but they also make it harder for people to stop.  

Research also shows that people rely on visual cues more than internal cues to stop consuming something. In 2005 a study was conducted by Brian Wansink called “Bottomless bowls” and had some individuals eating soup out of a self-refilling bowl while others ate soup out of a normal bowl. Individuals who unknowingly ate from the self-refilling bowl consumed 73 per cent more than the others. This study correlates with phones’ infinite scrolling. Without a visual cue, like an endpoint, individuals scroll more. Many apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have infinite scrolling rather than an endpoint, so it acts as a bottomless pit of content for users.

Cellphones are also preventing people from living in the moment, whether that be getting your first car, getting married or having a baby. People are simply documenting these on a device rather than actually living that moment.

Likes, shares and comments are the only things that seem to matter to most. Many people fear that someday soon humanity will be past the point of fixing. Soon families will not speak at the dinner table, packed buses and trains will be silent and parks will be empty, the swings swaying empty in the wind. Soon, humanity will no longer exist without a device glued to their hands.

Ask yourself what is really worth your attention? Something that lasts 10 seconds on a screen, or your life that has a set number of days, months and years that is passing you by?

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