Smartphone addiction has become such a widespread problem that there are now ankle-level signs on moving walkways in some Asian airports to warn people to sometimes look up. Lampposts in London’s famous Brick Lane have been padded to reduce injuries to people walking into them. Pavement lights have been installed in some cities in Australia, Germany and The Netherlands to sync with red, amber and green changes of traffic lights. Special walking lanes have been introduced in places such as Antwerp, Belgium, Washington DC, and Chongqing, China. Reduced speed limits have been introduced in New York City to minimize pedestrian accidents.
Why? Because millions of people are so distracted by their smartphones that they have become a danger to themselves and others.
Distracted walking collisions
I came across one such example yesterday, while driving in an urban area with my husband. As we turned right, a well-dressed businessman started to cross the road in front of us, so absorbed in his phone that he didn’t see us. In fact, when he eventually looked up, we could see in his eyes that he had no idea where on earth he was, and it took a few seconds for him to realize the danger he was in.
This is not an isolated incident. It happens all the time, which is why some authorities are now taking action to bring people to their senses.
In South Australia, the fine for walking while looking at a screen is $105. In Rexburg, Idaho, it will cost you $50. In Honolulu, fines are between $15 for a first offence rising to $99 for repeat offenders. Mumbai does not ban texting while walking but, because India has the highest selfie death rate of any country in the world, it has created over fifteen no selfie zones around the city. Many other cities are currently discussing what to do about the problem and are expected to introduce preventative methods or legislation.
An epidemic of smombies
Smartphone zombies (smombies) are everywhere, and increasing year by year. It’s a global epidemic.
According to Michelle Klein, Head of Marketing for North America at Facebook, the average adult checks their phone 30 times a day and the average millennial checks over 150 times a day. Other studies have shown that one in 3 people check their phone before even getting out of bed in the morning, and many teenagers interrupt their sleep to check for messages, leading to sleep deprivation and a reduced ability to pay attention at school. On average, a western smartphone user now spends over four hours a day using their device, tapping, swiping or clicking 2,617 times.
While governments try in vain to curb the use of smartphones by pedestrians and drivers, most people simply carry on because they are too addicted to their phones to stop. They can’t help themselves. They are slaves to the feel-good dopamine hits delivered minute by minute, that keep them coming back for more.
How to wise up
Some Silicon Valley insiders are now starting to speak about how we are being manipulated to become addicted.
Most notable of these is Tristan Harris, a former Google designer turned whistleblower, who has been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”.
‘Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in San Francisco, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies [Facebook, Apple & Google], had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention,’ he says. ‘We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.’
He is urging product designers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” to create software that is not based on cultivating addiction, but instead enables people to use technology to create positive contributions to humanity. His advocacy group, Time Well Spent, is dedicated to that purpose, and he gives some excellent examples of how it could work in his Ted Talk: How better tech could protect us from distraction.
I don’t usually include videos in my blog because they gobble up so much of people’s time, but I do recommend you watch this one. It contains information that could radically change how we all engage with technology in the future…
Equally concerned about internet addiction is Justin Rosenstein, a former Google and Facebook engineer, who helped build the Facebook “like” button and now sees the effect it has had on billions of people. ‘It is very common,’ he says, by way of apology, ‘for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.’
An article in the The Guardian reports that he now limits his Facebook time and has banned himself from Snapchat, which he feels is as addictive as heroin.
It’s very telling, of course, that Steve Jobs never let his own children use iPads or iPhones. He protected his own family, and many Silicon Valley CEOs are now following suit by weaning themselves off tech devices and sending their children to elite schools where smartphones, tablets and laptops are banned.
The title of an article published in Wired says it all: ‘Tech bigwigs know how addictive their products are. Why don’t the rest of us?’
So what can you do?
The first thing to understand is that if you use social media of any kind, you are subject to a whole range of persuasive techniques that have been deliberately engineered by very clever people to get and hold your attention in order to generate more revenue from advertising. You think you are making your own choices, but you are not, as Tristan Harris explains in another Ted Talk: How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day.
The first step to conquering addiction is to admit you are addicted and become aware of your compulsions. So next time you feel the urge to check your phone while you’re walking or driving, realize it’s not worth the risk to yourself or others and desist. Or if you cannot immediately summon the willpower to overcome your craving for a dopamine hit, then at least move to one side, out of the flow of pedestrian or road traffic, and come to a complete stop before you succumb.
If, like many people, you use your phone as a satnav, then activate the iPhone Do Not Disturb While Driving feature to block everything except emergency alerts and alarms. If you have an Android phone, there is a similar feature called Drivers App for Electronic Responsibility (DAPPER).
Another step you can take is to actively seek out ways that will help you to take control of your device in a more general way, such as How to kill Facebook’s newsfeed or Rescue Time. You can find more suggestions here: Take control of your phone
Technology itself is not inherently bad. It could be designed to help us develop enhanced levels of focus and insight for the betterment of the human race instead of the addictive distractions that it fosters today. But until enough of us say “enough” and changes are made top down, the best we can do is to use it more consciously and wisely rather than letting it use us.
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Copyright © Karen Kingston 2017
Are you addicted to your smartphone? Has this article helped you to see it from a different standpoint? Feel free to add your comments here.