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Are we a nation of mobile phone addicts? (And does it really matter if we are?)

By Ellen Branagh
Friday, January 23rd 2015

According to a survey last year, just over one in 10 people (13%) said they couldn’t last more than an hour without having access to their mobile phone.

The online poll, conducted by Opinium Research for Direct Line, found that 12% of the 2,003 respondents said they could go without food longer than they would without logging onto social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.


More and more people believe they simply cannot survive without their mobile device

According to the survey, while the internet topped a list of modern-day essentials that Britons can’t do without, it was followed high up by a laptop, tablet or iPad. It’s clear that people are using mobile devices more and more. Not only can you see it all around you, but research shows the number of people who are constantly hooked up to their devices – and the amount of time they spend on them – is growing at a furious rate.

According to Ofcom’s 2014 Communications Market Report, the average UK adult now spends more time using media or communications than they do sleeping – 8 hours 41 minutes versus 8 hours 21 minutes. The total use of media and communications averaged over 11 hours every day in 2014 – up more than two hours since similar research in 2010.

The report found almost nine in 10 (88%) 16-24-year-olds own a smartphone. And, in a worrying statistic, those young adults are glued to their devices for three and a half hours every day, which is nearly three times the adult average of 1 hour 22 minutes. If anything, the Ofcom figures back up its now-departed chief executive Ed Richards’s description of a “millennium generation” who are almost unable to function without smartphones and tablets.

‘Checking in constantly’

For research psychologist Dr Larry Rosen, a recognised expert in the ‘Psychology of Technology’, there are two aspects to our relationship with our smartphones. “First, we are using them to answer any questions, immediately be alerted to things we are looking forward to and basically to provide easy access to pleasurable activities.” This in itself wouldn’t be too concerning, says Rosen, aside from it showing a continual need for pleasure that can lead to addiction, illustrated by some gamers who struggle to log off.

“Second, and I think more important, is that we have now used our smartphones to connect with many, many people on many platforms. We check email, text messages, social media – lots of them – and many other ways that we stay connected with human beings. The problem is that we appear to be checking in constantly to keep up with this massive communication wave and we are doing so to relieve the feelings of anxiety about missing out on something important, or not being the first to comment on a post, or simply a need to stay on top of everything all the time.”


Our mobile phones provide far more than voice communication, from email to instant messaging and social media

In one study Rosen carried out, students’ smartphones were taken away from them and they were made to sit quietly and do nothing for more than an hour. Their anxiety was measured 10 minutes into the session and twice more during the hour or more that they were kept without their phones. The ‘light’ smartphone users showed no change in anxiety; the ‘moderate’ users started to gradually become more anxious through the session, and the ‘heavy’ users showed an increase at 10 minutes and carried on becoming more and more anxious.

There are also other signs of our obsession with our phones, says Rosen. Some people carry a phone in their hands rather than a pocket or bag so they can feel the vibration and answer quickly, rather than running the gauntlet of missing a call or text. “We are also seeing people sleeping with their phones next to the bed with the ringer on or on vibrate and awakening all night long to check messages. I could go on, but the signs are everywhere. In restaurants where phones occupy a place on the table, to movie theatres where people cannot help themselves and surreptitiously check their phones during the movie.”

The pendulum effect

We’re more anxious when we’re deprived of our phones. But what psychological effect does this have, and should we be worried? Rosen explains that anxiety is produced by the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain such as cortisol, a stress neurotransmitter. Anxiety lies at the centre of many psychiatric disorders, he says, such as anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and the more obvious obsessive compulsive disorder. In Rosen's words: “Don’t we all look OCD when we constantly check our phone all day long even without an alert or notification? If our anxiety levels continue to climb due to our reliance on our phones to stay constantly connected this will be a problem."

Rosen's hope is for the “pendulum effect” that he uses as a description for consumer response to new inventions and ideas. This sees new trends like smartphones act like a pendulum, moving slowly to one side as a few people start to use it, then further and further as momentum builds, swinging back eventually after the initial hype and momentum of widespread use dies down. “My hope is that like most pendulums, it will start to swing backwards with less reliance and less anxiety-driven behaviour. However, I am not seeing any of this as of yet in our research.”

‘Outsourcing’

Manufacturers are no strangers to tapping into social trends, and have embraced ways of making it more and more easy for us to access our mobile devices. The smartwatch is just the tip of the iceberg of the new trend in wearable tech, which offers an array of apps and devices to measure everything from sleep patterns to blood pressure.

This “outsourcing” of tasks, responsibilities and activities to our mobile devices is just the start of the blurring of lines between us and our tech, according to applied futurist Tom Cheesewright.

“I’ve been with my wife 11 years; I don’t know what her phone number is,” he says. “Because it’s always been in my phone. It’s the same number she’s had for 11 years, I’ve probably looked at it 100,000 times but I don’t know it, because I don’t need to know it. I’ve outsourced my memory to my phone. Likewise, my sense of direction. I have no sense of direction. I’ve outsourced it to my phone. It doesn’t matter anymore.”


Have we 'outsourced' so much to our mobile phones that we just can't cope without them?

Nowhere have Cheesewright’s predictions been so verifiable as at this year’s International CES in Las Vegas, where a flurry of products and devices took this concept of connected people, connected homes and connected cars to the next level. Gadgets ranged from an electronic cigarette that tracks people’s usage, GPS trackers for children and pets; along with a dummy that monitors the baby sucking on it. Leading car manufacturers like Audi championed their connected cars, and smart home companies offered ways of hooking up entertainment, heating and security systems.

'Invisibly integrated’

This plethora of apps and devices is just a starting point for a world Cheesewright describes, in which our mobile devices are “invisibly integrated” into our lives. “At the moment the relationship between me and my phone is a very manual one, it’s a very simple one. I often joke that our kids are going to be taking the p**s out of us – they’re going to ask, ‘didn’t your pockets wear out?’, because we’re constantly doing the back pocket shuffle with our phones, pulling them in and out.

“They won’t have that. This technology will be so invisibly integrated into their clothing, maybe into their bodies, but more likely their clothing, and the chairs, the tables, the objects around them. There won’t be this obvious gap between you and the technology, it’ll just be there. The lines between us and what is digital will blur completely.”


Are phones going beyond just practicalities, as they become a vital part of our memories?

With augmented reality no longer the stuff of science fiction, and communication already moving beyond the traditional ‘phone’, it’s rapidly becoming the case that we’re not just addicted to our tech, but it’s actually becoming part of us. Cheesewright, who advises organisations on how they should be looking to the future, cites a scene in Charles Stross’s 2005 science fiction novel Accelerando, as a window into how things could develop.

“This guy’s wearing basically what could be seen as Google Glass and a bunch of accoutrements, and he gets mugged for his glass. And this kid with mechanised boots runs off down the street and leaves this guy bewildered because he’s lost effectively half of his brain. The things that were telling him where to go, who he was meeting, who he was, have disappeared.

Sleepwalking into the inseparable

It’s not the integration of people with technology that’s worrying – it’s how quickly we’re sleepwalking into this world where people and their technology are inseparable. And if our phones and tablets are – for all intents and purposes – actually part of us, where does that leave us with some of the more abstract questions associated with the future of our connected selves?

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing," says Cheesewright. "Personally I don’t really have an issue with it. It carries risks, sure, but it also carries benefits. But I think that we ought to be making it as a conscious decision rather than an unconscious one, because it has all sorts of impacts. At the moment we’re moving towards that very, very quickly and not very consciously, and I think that’s almost a bigger issue than privacy.”

Technology's integration into our lives also raises bigger questions about how we deal with it as a vital part of us as people. “If you’ve outsourced your memory to a device and someone smashes that device, is that vandalism or is that assault? If you are functionally reliant on a piece of wearable technology to do your day job and it gets a virus is that a sick day? Or is that IT support? Questions we are so far from answering.”

We are only just beginning to address some of the difficult questions that come with allowing our phones and tablets to become not just handy tools, but a physical, emotional and mental necessity. But it is imperative that we start, as that reality is approaching at an astonishing rate.