The question is no longer about who has a smartphone, it is more about who does not own one? And does this say something about you?
According to Eurostat, in 2017 87% of households in the EU had access to the internet whereas 10 years ago, in 2007, the figure was almost half, 55%. It is interesting to note that households with dependent children have a higher proportion than those without. In 2012, more young people accessed the internet on devices other than the desktop computer, which reflects the increased use of smartphones and alternative devices. Pew Research Centre showed a strong correlation between per capita income and internet access, including smartphone ownership. In both developing and developed countries, people with higher incomes and more education are more likely to use the internet and own a smartphone than those with lower incomes and less education. In a survey from 2015, the countries with the highest percentage of people who own smartphones are, in order, South Korea, Australia, Israel, the US and Spain. If we only look at the figures of eople aged between 18-34 with smartphone ownership, the percentage is higher compared to those above 35 years old. As an example, in Germany, it is 92%, in Spain and the UK 91%.
I grew up in a pre-smartphone era. As a kid from the 1990s we experienced rapid technological advancements: radios, cable telephones, tape recorders, CD players, mini disc, MP3 players, desktop computers, large TVs. I remember how chunky and clunky technology was back then. And how often it failed. Around 2004, as teenagers, everyone around me started owning a phone. Phones big as bricks became an indispensable accessoire of people’s appearance and status of symbol. Who had the newest phone? Who had a coloured screen? Who had the coolest ringtone? I only had my classmates on my contact list, who I saw every day anyway, so there was not really a useful point in having a phone for me. Still around me, I slowly saw an evolving obsession to phones. Ever felt lost, bored, nervous or out of place? No need to light a cigarette, now you can either call someone, pretend to talk to someone on the phone, text, play Snake or some other mindless games.
The times of a smartphone-less life lasted until 2016, when my boyfriend gave me his old smartphone, so I joined the world of portable internet relatively late. Even 12-year-olds already had their own devices by then. The problem is, once you own one, it is hard to imagine yourself without one. Someone once wrote about phones as ‘an extension of the self’ - and those who experienced losing their smartphone can feel the sense of loss of an important part of one’s self. The smartphone has so many functions that are supposed to make our lives easier. Or are they more an extra burden? Calculators, street maps, public transport navigation, alarm clock, reminders, newspaper, translator, music, book, weather forecast, shopping, credit card - many functions that once involved the brain and some thinking and remembering have been relegated to the phone. Where does this ‘freed up’ brain space go to? Back to the smartphone, scrolling through social media, news feeds and games?
The border between internet addiction is hard to draw. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time on the internet. It was like a portal to endless worlds. I felt guilty when my parents exclaimed outrage on how much time I spent on the desktop computer. They would probably not complain now, as in these days, a lot of young people are somehow connected to the internet and carry their phones everywhere around. Many people own their own laptop plus smartphone. It has become perfectly accepted in society to even look at our phones while we’re eating or talking to someone. Is there still a thing such as ‘internet addiction’ or are most of us addicted and it has become accepted as normal?
In an article in The New Yorker, psychiatrists are in dispute whether internet addiction can be classified as ‘behavioural addiction’ because it is changing too rapidly to research, so it is hard to quantify and its long-term effects are not yet known. An online help guide refers to smartphone addiction as ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being without a mobile phone, when compulsive use of the internet and apps cause one to neglect real life, real-world relationships and social activities. Virtual relationships including social networking, texting, dating apps and messaging are often used because one is in control, not subject to so many demands and less stressful but they are not a healthy substitute to interactions in real life. It goes on to say: ‘Smartphones, tablets, or the Internet can be addictive because their use, just like the use of drugs and alcohol, can trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine and alter mood. And just like using drugs and alcohol, you can rapidly build up tolerance so that it takes more and more time in front of these screens to derive the same pleasurable reward.’ By contrast, a A U.N. study in 2013 published some facts for World Water Day: ‘Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation.’
What is the future of this? Eurostat talks about concerns for safety of young children and the effects on social behaviour as they increasingly withdraw to the internet. Also, there is lack of supervision on the content that young people watch that might be harmful. Research has shown that technology use hinders attention, creativity, productivity and memory, increase stress levels and sleeping problems and affects our intuitiveness and reasoning abilities. If you own a smartphone, it is very likely that you use it more than you think - in a British study, young people used their phones on average 5 hours per day, which is almost one third of their waking hours.
Of course, we need to balance the benefits of technologies with its downsides. Smartphones usage is also used effectively and usefully - it becomes a problem once it affects your quality of life.