Misuse of Smartphones: A Device Meant for Connection, Slowly Isolating Society

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.

-Neil Postman, later cultural critic and professor at New York University.[1]

Steven (an arbitrary name chosen for anonymity) is a 14-year-old teenager that I deeply care about. Since he was a toddler, he always seemed to be highly social. I remember his days in middle school when his teacher would constantly send letters complaining about how she would try to sit Steven in different spots during class, but the child somehow managed to always find somebody to talk to. When he joined high school, however, Steven became introverted. After school, you would always find him hanging around friends, but now he would spend this time continuously scrolling through social media or wasting hours watching videos on apps like YouTube while in the solitude of his room. I felt worried about Steven; he, who was always full of energy and seemed to find conversation and make friends with even the driest of kids, slowly became socially awkward and withdrawn. Many months after his first day of high school, I finally asked him, "Hey, how's high school going? I haven't seen you around your friends that often. Does schoolwork make you that busy?" to which he responded, "I actually don't have any friends… maybe just one, but he's always busy… but it is okay, I text people online every day with my phone." Instantly, I knew Steven was not okay; worried I tried to understand the boy’s switch in behavior. High school was the time when Steven got his first smartphone. Therefore, could this device have enabled or even influenced his depression and asocial behavior?

An infant using an Smartphone.

Today smartphones are regarded as a must-have among adolescents; these devices are commonly used for leisure, connecting with others, and learning new things, according to Pew Research Center. In addition, Freelance writer Sarah J. Purewal wrote an article in 2015 detailing some of the not-so-obvious but still valuable services smartphones can provide.[2] In one of her points, the author mentions how smartphones can keep users relatively safe while in scary situations by allowing them to share the personal live location with friends. This tracker proves handy for parents who naturally want to ensure their child's safety; it can alert them of unusual behavior or possible dangers their kid could be facing while on the outside. And there has been evidence of the GPS tracker saving teens' lives. For example, in 2019, reporter Allyson Chiu wrote an article for The Washington Post detailing how teenage Catrina Cramer Alexander suffered a car accident while driving through a dense forest but was found and eventually rescued after her mom received Alexander's location through the "Find My Friends" app. This information adds to the idea that, if appropriately used, smartphones can be a beneficial tool for adolescents.[3]

And what could be more beneficial than saving a life? edit

The Pew Research Center showed an increase in teen's smartphone access from 73% in 2015 to 95% in 2018. With this in mind, I find it redundant to keep talking about the pros of having this technology around us. Otherwise, why would the majority of people keep around something that could be harmful to them?[4]

But, as famous author, NYU professor, and cultural critic Neil Postman once said, "Technological change is a trade-off... Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our landscape". We must try to understand what we are giving in return for providing this seemingly exceptional technology to people that are now growing up with these devices.

Problematic Smartphone Use edit

The Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that promotes safe technology and media for children, reported in 2019 on the average screen time teenagers spend on their phones. The research showed that the average teen spends an alarming amount of seven and a half hours a day using their smartphones devices. However, to talk about the problems that smartphones bring to teenage lives, we need to first discuss Problematic Smartphone Use (PSU).[5]

you may wonder: why call it PSU instead of smartphone addiction? edit

In the study titled "Smartphone Addiction of Adolescents, Not a Smart Choice" made for the Journal of Korean medical science, researcher Seung Min Bae mentions that psychiatry has not considered smartphone addiction a proper illness because of current disagreements at the moment of measuring withdrawal and tolerance. Because of this, scientists prefer the term "Problematic Smartphone Use" instead of considering it a proper addiction.[6] Surprisingly however, in the Forbes article "The Truth About Smartphone Addiction, And How To Beat It," Brian Scudamore explains that similarly to how we get a dopamine rush by eating our favorite meal, we also get a dopamine rush whenever we receive a new notification in our cell phones. Being the "feel-good hormone," dopamine usually motivates the behavior that caused its release; Scudamore then explains how this dopamine rush can subsequently lead to an addiction to said behavior, similar to what happens with cocaine users.[7] In another article made for Insider in 2020, senior health reporter Anna Medaris references an extensive study comparing smartphone addiction effects to those found in people with drug addiction.[8] Medaris mentioned how the study related both types of addiction victims' tendency to have fewer brain cells, a lesser sense of empathy, impulse control, emotions, and decision making. While problematic smartphone use may still not be considered a proper illness or addiction, it is scary to think that the issues it brings can be compared to those that real substance abusers often face.

And it is scarier when you consider that the teenage population has been identified as a major risk group for PSU, according to Bae's research mentioned above. Bae describes that one of the main reasons for this is that the teenage years are a period of brain development in which one is more susceptible to addiction. A literature study by Linda Fischer-Grote for the Neuropsychiatrie medical journal also backs the previous information since it also shows data linking PSU to difficulties in self-regulation and immature control competencies commonly present at a young age.[9]

“Too much of anything is bad,” and these studies have proven excessive use of smartphones may turn that valuable tool into something detrimental to their users. In addition, we have identified how Problematic Smartphone Use compares to substance addiction and how teenagers are especially vulnerable to it. We can now proceed to the harmful effects of PSU on teenage lives.

The negative effects edit

The teenage years are when people learn and develop their social skills; smartphones can negatively impact this process by altering how teenagers communicate. In the article "Can You Hear Me Now," professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sherry Turkle explains that teens need to have some time alone to develop their personal feelings and ideas to then share with others.[10] Still, with smartphones, Turkle warns it is easier for said teens to express online whatever thought comes to mind quickly. This ease of communication is problematic since it removes that necessary self-reflection time in which teenagers can develop, change or discard said thoughts. Smartphones are designed for an easy, quick, and simplified way of communication. Yet, if people adopt said way of communication from an early age, profound and meaningful talks are lost in the process. Therefore, the usage of smartphones in youth can affect the development of one's persona.

Smartphones are often used during late night hours, causing disruptions in sleep schedules.

Years later, Sherry Turkle also gave a TED talk titled "Connected, But Alone?" in which she warns about how new technology such as smartphones has influenced human interactions, evolving them to superficiality.[11] Turkle elaborates by explaining how humans have a natural inclination to connect with others, and the way of communication that smartphones provide is unnatural to us. The main reason is that technology such as smartphones provides us with easy, surface-level text conversations in which we control how we are perceived. This issue is especially harmful to young people who are still learning to manage themselves in social situations because it gives them a wrong idea of human interactions. In the words of an 18-year-old who reached out to Turkle: "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."

The Center For Humane Technology is a website that compiles summaries and references to lots of studies proving the harmful effects of smartphones on users with PSU. One of the referenced studies showed a relationship between smartphone use and sleep difficulties; these sleep difficulties were then proven to connect to high levels of depression during adolescence. The website also referenced another study proving a 66% increase in suicide-related outcomes in teenage girls who spend more than five hours daily on social media through their smartphones. It is ironic then how this device that could even save lives, as we mentioned earlier, can also be the reason for someone's tragic fate.

On a last note, the data center Statista provided information about the preferred methods of communication of teens and their change between the years 2012 and 2018:[12]

Texting In-person Social media Video-chatting Talking on the phone Other
2012 33% 49% 7% 2% 4% 5%
2018 35% 32% 16% 10% 5% 2%

Conclusion edit

Smartphones are helpful tools that make our lives easier. However, supporting evidence shows that these devices can also contribute to the depression and isolation of teenage users. The harmful effects demonstrated in this research are just a few of many others that PSU brings to those affected. However, this research aimed to shed some light on the negatives that seemingly good technology can bring to people growing up with it. I encourage further reading about the issue and spreading information to help and prevent an increase in PSU victims. Do not let Steven’s experience repeat itself on someone you love.

References edit

  1. Postman, Neil. “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change.” https://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/materials/postman.pdf March 28, 1998.
  2. Purewal, S, J. “Ways Smartphones are making our lives better”. https://www.greenbot.com/article/2908013/9-ways-smartphones-are-making-our-livesbetter.html. Accessed May 2022
  3. Chiu, Allyson. “A Teenager Didn't Come Home. an IPhone App Led Her Mother to a Ravine.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 June 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/06/17/teenager-missed-curfew-an-iphone-app-led-her-mother-ravine/.
  4. Anderson, Monica, and Jingjing Jiang. “Teens, Social Media and Technology 2018.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 27 May 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/#:~:text=Some%2095%25%20of%20teens%20now,and%20ethnicities%20and%20socioeconomic%20backgrounds.
  5. “Tweens, Teens, and Phones: What Our 2019 Research Reveals.” Common Sense Media, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/kids-action/articles/tweens-teens-and-phones-what-our-2019-research-reveals.
  6. Bae, Seung Min. “Smartphone Addiction of Adolescents, Not a Smart Choice.” Journal of Korean medical science vol. 32,10 (2017): 1563-1564. doi:10.3346/jkms.2017.32.10.1563
  7. Scudamore, Brian. “The Truth about Smartphone Addiction, and How to Beat It.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianscudamore/2018/10/30/the-truth-about-smartphone-addiction-and-how-to-beat-it/?sh=49803cc4232c.
  8. Medaris, Anna. “Smartphone Addiction May Shrink Key Areas of Your Brain in a Similar Way to Drugs.” Insider, Insider, 19 Feb. 2020, https://www.insider.com/smartphone-addiction-may-shrink-areas-of-brain-like-drug-addiction-2020-2.
  9. Fischer-Grote, Linda, et al. “Risk Factors for Problematic Smartphone Use in Children and Adolescents: A Review of Existing Literature.” Neuropsychiatrie, vol. 33, no. 4, 2019, pp. 179–90. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40211-019-00319-8.
  10. Turkle, Sherry. “Can You Hear Me Now.” Forbes. April, 2007.
  11. Turkle, Sherry “Connected, but Alone?” Ted.com. February 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_connected_but_alone?language=en
  12. Richter, Felix. “Infographic: Less Talk, More Texting.” Statista Infographics, 21 Sept. 2018, https://www.statista.com/chart/15544/teenagers-favorite-way-to-communicate/.