Are you addicted to your phone?

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Images such as the photo above may cause extraordinary laughter to viewers and possibly deep embarrassment to the person involved. It is a photo of four different moments captured on a mall security camera of a woman falling into a fountain because she is so distracted by her cell phone. What could have been that important or engaging that she did not see that she was about to be immersed in water? One might wonder if situations such as these are an anomaly or what is rapidly becoming the norm in nations where there is wide usage of smart phones and mobile application software (apps). Unfortunately, there were several results to choose from the search engine we used to find the image above.

Other scenarios aren’t so embarrassing, but put into question how people now socialize. An example of this would be someone at a dinner party, too pre-occupied by their phone, clicking away on a friends’ photo shared on social media of some sort of exotic vacation trip, only to find carefully curated photos exclusively featuring that friend. While there are many advancements in technology that are undeniably necessities for functioning well in our society in its current state, some pitfalls exist. Perhaps it’s simply a normal thing – “phubbing,” the casual definition assigned to this behavior by the online magazine publisher, The Atlantic. Or is this behavior indicative of something more serious?

It becomes less of a humorous conversation when we begin to attach words such as addiction or psychological and physiological health issues to the discussion about smart phone usage. The U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines the word nomophobia (in the image above) as a cell phone addiction. While at first nomophobia may sound absurd, NIH researchers have conducted studies that highlight adolescent anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep deprivation resulting from cell phone addiction. This research led us to find more data about this apparent phone addiction and what people are doing to detox. Detox is not too dramatic of a word to use here. In addition to the NIH research studies, we discovered articles from The New York Times, Forbes, and even a TED talk detailing the withdrawals some experienced when they embarked on a cold turkey fast from their phones and social media.

The Social Dilemma, a documentary drama film released on Netflix earlier this month has been causing waves across publications and among consumers alike. It addressed the impact and development of social media over the past decade. Several technology industry professionals (former employees, executives, designers, and engineers) discuss their involvement in artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning, persuasive design in apps, behavior modification technology, social tracking, data misuse, misinformation, and more. Academics and critics discuss the effects of this new technology becoming part of our daily lives through our smart phone devices. The film goes in depth about how artificial intelligence, psychology, and algorithms have been used by the biggest social media technology companies to create addictions to our devices that even their own employees struggle with. Google data collection for profiles, searches tailored to location, YouTube and Facebook recommendations/suggestions hyper-focusing on interests – ultimately the creation of echo chambers are just the tip of the iceberg of some of what the film depicted. Tactics that emphasize unconscious habits in comparison to motions of physically gambling on a slot machine and swiping on your phone are used. Activities that release the neurotransmitter dopamine are encouraged to achieve positive reinforcement when you post something that is well-received among peers or strangers. This brain manipulation to boost engagement is used to entice companies to buy advertising space.

A fictional family is used to illustrate the severity of the use of this technology. At one point the teen daughter breaks open a locked jar to retrieve her cell phone that her mother had put away for an hour so they could enjoy a device free family dinner. She then becomes visibly distraught as she posts selfies and waits for likes and comments. The son is also anxious when involuntarily separated from his phone. We see he is influenced by constant notifications encouraging him to check the status of his friends and ex-girlfriend. After obtaining his phone again, he later comes across questionable political propaganda which incites him to attend a protest he previously knew nothing about.

A central theme throughout the film seems to be mental health among the younger generation, Gen Z. The topic is worth delving in further to figure out ways to protect our families and ourselves. We mentioned in our previous data privacy article that there are already some regulations that penalize certain online activity with youth, but perhaps more needs to be done. The Social Dilemma film shows a short clip of Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, testifying before Congress where Senator Jon Tester basically says that he is glad he will be dead before the full consequences of these technologies emerge. Harris has since gone on to found the Center for Humane Technology to perhaps remedy some of these man-made AI technology issues. He is featured throughout the film discussing various aspects of the problem. He talks about loving magic tricks as a child, and connects that with his time at the persuasive technology lab at Stanford University. Whether it is described as persuasive technology, artificial intelligence, or magic tricks, this is the moment to question how time is being spent on these devices. What is the true cost of being social? The original form of Facebook was to connect you with people that you knew. Think of how different things would be if we paid to be on social media websites. There would be no advertisers, and we would not be the product.

In the beginning of this article we asked, are you addicted to your phone? We now pose the question, are you addicted to social media? Let us know your thoughts below.