Some would say that I am the last person who should be writing a piece about smartphone addiction. But, at the same time, there are few more qualified to write about the subject than someone with experience. As an interventional cardiologist, I am dependent on my phone for my livelihood, and often my patient’s lives. As such, I have no option to turn it off or to ignore it. Over the years, however, my phone has become much more than a tool of communication, and I have become increasingly dependent upon it in every aspect of my life.
When Apple launched the smartphone revolution in 2007 they made a significant error in naming it, choosing to call it the “iPhone“. This moniker labeled the device as a phone first and foremost, and relegated its other functions to secondary features. As any smartphone owner can attest, the telephony features of these devices are truly incidental to their vast capabilities. These devices serve as nothing less than virtual windows which look out simultaneously onto every corner of the world, peering into every country, every library, every movie theater, and every resource. The fact that they can also make telephone calls is almost gauche.
Just as a child bored in school may stare wistfully out of their classroom window, so too will a smartphone user turn to their virtual “world window” for an escape when faced with even the mere suggestion of boredom. As long as anything anywhere in the world is more interesting than what they are doing (and when is that not true?), the temptation to be virtually transported to that activity may prove irresistible. Teacher droning on? A good time to look at movie reviews for the flick you want to see. Conversation take a dull turn? Let’s join a facebook friend on their Hawaiian vacation instead. In addition, smartphones provide instant access to references which we may have otherwise ignored. The annoying feeling one gets when they can’t recognize an actor on TV would probably go unnoticed, but with a smartphone in hand it can be remedied immediately. The congenial debate with a friend over meaningless historical trivia can be solved immediately, to absolutely nobody’s lasting benefit. The examples, and the possibilities, are truly endless.
This kind of power and access can be detrimental however. Numerous scientific studies have warned us of the deleterious effects of being too “plugged in.” Instant access to all of the world’s data causes us to place unreasonably high expectations on ourselves and others for accuracy, speed, and connectivity. Such expectations can lead to dangerously high stress levels, deterioration of interpersonal relationships, and eventually a total dependence on the information stream.
Smartphone addiction is the end result of such pressures. The user not only feels the need to continually access the information stream, but eventually considers it essential to existence, wondering how he or she ever lived without it. One crucial point of this relationship is that while the addict may consider this access “necessary,” he or she may not actually enjoy it; in fact craving of the object may actually be linked to simultaneous feelings of repulsion for it. To speak candidly, I fall into the latter group. I occassionally resent being tethered to my smartphone, but until recently found no way to actually divorce myself from it, while upholding the responsibilities I have to my patients.
Everyone must deal with this issue in a method particular to their own circumstance. Given my need to constantly maintain a certain minimum degree of connection, this continues to be especially difficult for me. One solution I have found is simply turning off cellular data and wifi when I come home, effectively transforming my smartphone into a “dumbphone” capable of phone calls and texts (allowing my patients access to me), while not allowing me to look out of my virtual window. Of course, the power is mine to turn data back on with a few swipes. I have found that the time it takes to make those swipes, however, allows me the requisite time to reflect on the relative importance of what I am doing, and prevents me from absentmindedly accessing my information feed. In those precious moments, I can ask myself the questions my Sensei taught us in order to bring about focus in martial arts training, “Where am I? What am I doing? Is it real?” When it comes to my smartphone, most often the answers are not encouraging.
Another solution I hope to implement soon is the addition of a “smart watch”. Perhaps it is an addict’s delusion to believe that a device designed to increase connectivity can actually be used to decrease it. I am hopeful, however, that by allowing me to screen phone calls and text messages without ever touching my phone, I will be less tempted to access the other features of my phone every time it rings or dings (which unfortunately is quite often), or to immediately respond to every communication.
I have resigned myself to always having an increased level of connectivity due to my chosen profession; a day has not gone by in the last seven years when I have not been in touch with patients, the hospital or the office. However, the novelty of the capability of our current devices has worn off to the point where we, as a society and as individuals, need to make serious decisions about curtailing our use of these technologies in order to preserve the operation of the most powerful computer we own–our minds.