The truth about smartphone addiction

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.

Human evolution - not

Lamp posts 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 warn pedestrians they are about to cross the road. Special walking lanes have been introduced in places such as Antwerp, Belgium, Washington DC, Manchester, UK 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. He co-founded  The Center for Human Technology, which 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 or Android Do Not Disturb While Driving  feature to block everything except emergency alerts and alarms.

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. You can find some excellent suggestions here: Tips to take control of your tech usel

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.

Copyright © Karen Kingston 2017

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Why online searching can be addictive
Are you a single, double, or triple screener?
Teens, tweens and technology

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Copyright © Karen Kingston 2017


About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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14 Responses to The truth about smartphone addiction

  1. My name is Jack (Jacques). I’m French, so please excuse my English. I’m seventy years old, and I am fully engaged in the recovery of alcoholism. My main occupation is writing and sharing with an anonymous brotherhood, which I am a member of for the past 38 years.

    In a few days, I will have taken 32 years of sobriety (abstinence) in both alcohol and drug use. I was an addicted user for over 25 years, that is since the age of 12. Let’s say simply that I have some knowledge in the field of “addiction”.

    The first thing I had to admit, is that “addiction” is a combined mind (or mental) and spiritual disease or disorder, for which I lost all control; consequently, I also lost consciousness of my behaviours. This meant, that I and millions of others like me, had to rehabilitate our ways of thinking and living.

    A complete surrender towards my old ways of thinking and acting is now reoriented on new principles, based on common sense and wisdom. This is still in action on a day by day-based awareness. (Yes, there are some spiritual principles involved, all very personal, though!) So, for the past 15 years, I’m actually voluntary, deliberately, willingly, intentionally, addicted to my PC (Personal Home Computer).

    My main occupation is transmitting the message of hope to others that are afflicted with, and now for some time, not only alcohol and drug abuse and addiction, but all combined “mind and soul addictions”. For that reason, I’m fully against having a so-called “smartphone” in my possession. Mainly because I don’t really need it… My Home Personal Computer is all what I need, and it’s even more complete and accurate in a variety of ways. It’s all that I require for my work, entertainment and/or numerous other hobbies that I might be interested in (by choice!).

    When I see these back pockets filled with those so-called “smartphones”, and all these distracted minds walking and doing all those things, with their eyes focused on a “cathodic” screen, and even more strangely, typing and/or tacking like zombies, to this little plastic box; ignoring completely the somewhat “dangerous” environment we’re in…

    Since I am especially aware that this phenomenon is the reality of billions of people mostly middle-aged, youngsters and drastically also children… This now being our reality and even since a few decades, which is more than one generation… Conclusively, I think, that when “addiction” is at that stage, we are facing an epidemic situation for which we have yet no remedy or “vaccine”…

    More deviously, is the fact that the “mind control” which to many businesses, mostly computerized and marketing are focusing, to control human minds and therefore reverse our evolution, based on our beloved and so archly achieved freedom and democracy, into a new era of apocalyptic slavery… That is why I deeply and strongly encourage the work of TED and its conferences to be heard and promulgated throughout the entire word A.S.A.P.

    In French Canadian we say: Au PC! (Au plus Christ!)

    Truly Yours,

    Jack Geai

  2. I work in a college environment, and I noticed that people don’t look at each other when speaking. I hear “Yes, I’m listening…” while they are frantically typing on their phones. Technology has eroded civility.

    Thank you Karen, for such a timely article and connecting digital and physical clutter – because after all it’s another distraction from becoming who you were meant to be.

  3. I’m balling my eyes out after that video, and seriously concerned that there aren’t ways we can teach healthy phone use for the safety of all. I’m going to adjust my phone use, turn it off or put an app on my phone or find a way to detach more as my brain is habitually on my phone while driving 🙁

    The thing is I use it for directions sometimes, and I know many who do that, so what’s the best way in that case without endangering life?

  4. Karen thank you for this timely and important article. It reminds me of what I’ve seen and experienced and of the negative consequences. The two videos strongly reinforce what you’ve discussed. I am sharing it with my family and friends. It will save lives.

  5. My iPhone has a drive function that will prevent calls or texts coming through when you are driving. Since activating mine, I am much calmer and attentive to driving. I highly recommend it.

  6. Karen, thank you so much for this article. I use a flip phone and no one can understand why. Without knowing about the studies or talks you have shared, I instinctively knew a smart phone would be so addicting to me, I’d never get anything done. There are things it would be easier having a smart phone — coupons at the craft stores, internet access when I’m lost or looking for some place/thing, but it’s really not worth becoming more enthralled to the internet! Now to wean myself from Google’s new feeds on my computer!

  7. I would be interested to know more about why it is that this is happening – is it in the nature of addiction? Is it that people desperately want to connect? Are we more isolated than other people in history? Is it just a habit like any other habit

  8. Thanks for this timely article. I live amongst 2 daughters who are addicted, many friends who can’t eat dinner without following their phones the whole time, leaving no time for any conversation. What’s the point of even getting together (that woman also texts while driving, illegal but she doesn’t care, so I no longer ride with her). My daughter’s mother in law is 100% addicted, texts while driving, at restaurants, even been to a movie with her, who secretly looked at her phone the whole time. I see families in fast food diners with each one on a device, nothing spoken. Same with dates at Starbucks, meet, introduce and pull out their phones. I happily don’t have that addiction, rarely look at my phone, am NOT on Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, etc. But I want to help my daughters. Thanks again.

  9. There used to be times, when young people helped older people across the road. These times have gone.
    Now older people have to help young people to safely cross the road.

  10. I’ve been seriously struggling with screen addiction. This article was the push I needed to delete social media from my phone, let my Netflix subscription lapse and take up a hobby. I’ve followed you for many years Karen and I find it fate that you would publish this when I needed it the most. Blessed Be.

  11. A fellow PhD student is looking at train station human traffic flows told me that looking at your phone whilst walking impacts 12 people around you (can’t remember the exact number but was of this order).

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