When Will We Accept That Smartphones Are Addictive?

If you fail a university course or lose your job because you are so distracted by your smartphone then is the phone manufacturer really to blame or is addiction the problem?
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Last week Apple announced their new Screen Time feature. This is designed to encourage responsible smartphone use - in particular so parents can control the amount of time their kids are using phones. However, if you fail a university course or lose your job because you are so distracted by your smartphone then is the phone manufacturer really to blame or is addiction the problem?

It sounds like a stupid question, but think about it slightly differently. The tobacco and alcohol industries both invest heavily in programmes designed to prevent and treat addiction - likewise with the gambling industry. Any industry selling a product that could potentially be addictive is forced to take measures to prevent addiction, such as funding awareness programmes or treatment charities.

You can argue that the measures are not enough. Gambling companies want to encourage gambling, not stop their customers logging in and placing bets, but most organisations are responsible. The gambling companies don't want a wave of online poker addicts meaning their entire industry is more heavily regulated or closed completely. The drinks companies want you enjoy a good night out, but not to the extent that you rely on drinking their products every night and sleeping rough. Addictive products have a place in society when they are used responsibly.

But are we ignoring the addictive nature of smartphones? Try taking away someone's phone today and see how long they can cope without it. Look around on a train or bus and see how many people are lost to the real world, gazing blankly into their phone. Phone separation, or battery status, is now a genuine source of anxiety for many people.

The Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive recently said that constant use of an iPhone is actually misuse. He uses an Apple Watch to filter the number of notifications he personally has to interact with. What he is implying is that most people are constantly distracted by their phone. The product is being misused and this is the man who designed the iPhone.

When Tim Cook was asked if the iPhone creates poor social behaviour he dodged the question, but now we are a decade into the smartphone era the data is starting to arrive. The Wall Street Journal recently published research indicating that college students who left their phone outside the lecture theatre - and therefore were more focused on the class - scored a full grade higher. Academics believe that the intellectual reliance on smartphones is having a seriously adverse effect on our mental skills, such as problem solving and creativity.

Apple and Samsung do all they can to encourage us to use our phones even more. Researchers suggest that the average American interacts with their phone at least 80 times a day. When the Financial Times profiled how British teenagers relate to their phones, they found that 13-year-olds feel a closer relationship to their phone than to other family members. The phone has become a family member. What happens when we move beyond smartphones to wearables and implants?

I've talked for several years to corporate leaders about how they need to change the way they talk to customers because the way that customers talk to each other has changed. It's obvious really. When is the last time you called a family member for a catch-up? In fact when is the last time you called anyone or answered a call from a number that isn't in your contact list? Voice calls feel disruptive today when compared to texting. It's a lot to expect the recipient of a call to drop everything they are doing so they can focus on a conversation with you.

Conversation is now largely through text and social networking platforms. Families are held together by Facebook. Kids share activities from their day via Snapchat. I'm not an anthropologist, but I can see that in just ten years there has been a complete revolution in how humans interact and communicate. There must surely be an effect on how we process information and learn - we just don't know what will change at this point. It's still too early and change is coming so fast.

What is becoming clear though, is that for all the incredible communication benefits of smartphones there is a downside to constant distraction. It affects study, work, and relationships. How many times have you seen a couple in a romantic restaurant with both of them in a deep conversation with their smartphone rather than each other?

Will Apple and Samsung need to start behaving like Diageo, Philip Morris, or Paddy Power and accepting that they are manufacturing products that can potentially be addictive? I don't think we have any detailed answers on this yet, but my suspicion is that they are going to need to face up to the problem of smartphone addiction and the first cases will not be far away.


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