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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What are Our Phones Doing to Us?

Are smartphones destroying our focus, our relationships, and even our humanity?

Let’s consider a few data points on America’s relationship with the smartphone. First, a recent survey published by SellCell, a cellphone price comparison company, found that 54 percent of Americans answered “yes” to the question “Would you rather spend time on your phone than in your partner’s company?” with 71 percent reporting that they do in fact spend more personal time with their phone than their partner. Another survey, conducted by independent reviewing site, found that 41 percent of Americans “say they’d rather give up sex for a year than give up their phone for a year.” Should one doubt the methodological rigor of SellCell, gold-standard research firm Pew found in 2021 that over half of Americans say their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their phone when they are trying to have a conversation with them, and that nearly one in three adults now says they are “almost constantly” online. It is not difficult to find plenty more troubling statistics: most people now sleep next to their phones, never turn their phones off, report a sense of panic when their battery is low, check their phones within minutes of waking up, are uneasy leaving their phones at home, touch their phones thousands of times a day, and use their phones while using the toilet. 

Most 18-year-olds admit to having texted while driving. Nearly half of people sometimes text others who are in the same house. A similar number consider their phones their most valuable possessions, and polls have found anywhere between half and three-fourths of Americans confessing to phone addiction. Nearly half of Americans reported spending 5-6 hours a day on their phones. Furthermore, the number of people who don’t have smartphones is growing smaller and smaller: 85 percent of Americans now report having a smartphone, while 97 percent own a cellphone of some kind.

The reports about the way smartphones have impacted romantic relationships are perhaps the most disquieting. Though, arguably, sexual desire and love for one’s partner aren’t drives quite as biologically basic as the will to stay alive, there is no disputing the fact that for the vast majority of people, love and sexual desire are—or, until relatively recently were—extraordinarily deeply entrenched aspects of their identities. (Indeed, even the small number of Americans who are asexual, and who thus experience little to no sexual attraction to others, are often still willing partners in romantic relationships.)

One might be tempted to attribute many of the extraordinary recent findings to the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily made everyone much more online. But reports of the replacement of relationships with phones began streaming in years ago. (NBC News, 2011: “Survey: One third would rather give up sex than phone”; CNBC, 2013: “Sex or Smartphone? Women Prefer the Gadgets”; Bloomberg, 2015: “Give Up Sex or Your Mobile Phone? Third of Americans Forgo Sex.”) Furthermore, the decline in sexual frequency is well documented. A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that “American adults had sex about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s.” That might not sound like too much of a difference, but the numbers are particularly extreme among younger people, as another study in the same journal showed: “Between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of adolescents reporting no sexual activity, either alone or with partners, rose from 28.8 percent to 44.2 percent among young men and from 49.5 percent in 2009 to 74 percent among young women.” One of the study authors, Tsung-chieh (Jane) Fu of the Indiana University School of Public Health, explained that “for young people, computer games, increasing social media use, video games—something is replacing that time.”

What the existing data points seem to show is that vast swaths of the U.S. population would prefer to spend time with their personalized high-tech gadgets rather than attempt to foster meaningful human relationships and/or engage in one of life’s most biologically basic activities. Is this healthy? We might be tempted to dismiss the trends as benign, or the product of individual choices to maximize happiness. But as journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote in a 2020 article called “The Social Fabric of the U.S. is Fraying Severely, if Not Unravelling, “there are “very troubling [new] data that reflect intensifying pathologies in the U.S. population—not moral or allegorical sicknesses but mental, emotional, psychological, and scientifically proven sickness.” Greenwald cited a 2020 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey, which assessed the mental health of American adults. Among other discoveries, the report found that 10.7 percent of American adults, equating to roughly 20 million Americans, had “seriously considered suicide” in the past 30 days—that is, “not fleetingly considered [suicide] as a momentary  nor thought about it ever in their lifetime,” as Greenwald elaborated, “but seriously considered suicide at least once in the past thirty days.” Among younger Americans, the figures were even more disturbing: more than a quarter (25.5 percent) of American adults between the ages of 18-24, and 16 percent of adults between the ages of 25-44, had thought seriously about taking their own lives during the previous month. Greenwald commented:

“In a remotely healthy society, one that provides basic emotional needs to its population, suicide and serious suicidal ideation are rare events. It is anathema to the most basic human instinct: the will to live. A society in which such a vast swath of the population is seriously considering it as an option is one which is anything but healthy, one which is plainly failing to provide its citizens the basic necessities for a fulfilling life.”

It is certainly possible to point to the pandemic to explain some of the increase in anxiety and depression. But as U.S. News & World Report documents, among children “anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems appear to be on the rise, while the amount of time kids spent being physically active or getting preventive care has been on the decline,” plus “parental emotional well-being and mental health … [were found] to be suffering in tandem.” The magazine notes that “that was all pre-pandemic,” with the pandemic making an already bad situation worse. A 2018 article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) notes that “Sociologists have observed the decline in various measures of psychosocial well-being in the United States for some time” and “alarming declines in measures such as trust have been documented for decades.” Happiness, trust, sex frequency, and life expectancy have all been in decline, while despair has increased, which leads the AJPH researchers to conclude that “the United States has experienced what amounts to a social crisis that dates back to at least the 1980s.”

In the context of this social crisis, we should be cautious about what we attribute to technology alone. We must also disentangle cause from effect: has addiction to phones torn us apart, or has an already-suffering society turned to the narcotic of smartphones to relieve the pain? (The same caution applies when trying to analyze the opioid epidemic and understand the degree to which the drugs are a cause rather than a symptom of other problems in people’s lives.) We do know that material deprivation is clearly a major part of the story—the AJPH cites rising medical costs as a major culprit in declining mental health. But it’s also worth appreciating just how monumental a shift in our living patterns we have undergone as smartphones have become ubiquitous. It is a fact that most of us now spend a significant portion of our day that would once have been spent around physical human beings in an artificial world (there are those in Silicon Valley who even anticipate that we will soon live almost full-time in a dystopian place they call the Metaverse). Surely the switch of huge portions of daily activity from in-person to online has significant effects on us. Smartphone use appears to have a played a major role in reshaping the “internal environment” of the human individual: in particular, it appears to have radically restructured what we take to be most important in life—a restructuring which, at least prior to the smartphone era, many of us would have regarded as overwhelmingly negative.

In fact, many Americans seem to recognize the current state of affairs as inherently problematic. According to one survey, 73 percent of Americans said that they would be “happier if they spent less time” on their phones, with only slightly fewer (70 percent) admitting that smartphones are adversely impacting their relationships with those closest to them. Smartphone use has been credibly linked to a variety of mental and physical afflictions, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, short attention spans, reduction in reading ability, reduced in-person socializing, stunted childhood growth, general lower intelligence, obesity, poor eyesight, and even suicide. Indeed, there is little doubt that smartphone use has in many ways exacerbated and reinforced many of the pathologies confronting contemporary American society. In a country in which, for instance, more than three-fifths of the population report being lonely (with the figure rising to four-fifths for Gen Z), it is not difficult to understand how spending one’s time on one’s phone addictively scrolling through social media, as opposed to forming and sustaining meaningful human relationships, is unlikely to alleviate, and indeed is much more likely to exacerbate, such feelings of desperation. U.S. children now spend a lot of time online (the overwhelming majority of young children spend more time in front of a screen than experts recommend). Parents certainly don’t have terribly high opinions of smartphones. Technology is the number one factor parents cite as making parenting harder today than it used to be, and Pew research found that 71 percent of parents think “smartphones will hurt [their] children’s abilities to develop healthy friendships and learn social skills” and the “potential harm [of smartphones] outweighs the potential benefit.”

This does not mean that the parents are necessarily right, of course. We also have to acknowledge that even though Americans worry about their addiction to smartphones, they also like their phones. One Gallup study found that 70 percent of smartphone users say that smartphones have “made their lives better.” Many may well recognize they are addicted but feel it’s an addiction they’re happy to live with. On this interpretation, maybe people really do prefer to be on Instagram rather than spend time with loved ones. Given the choice between having or sustaining a meaningful human relationship and being on their phones, they would willingly choose the latter over the former, without regrets. 

Not all of the smartphone’s effects on human society have been negative. Indeed, according to a 2019 Pew poll, a significant majority of people in developing countries report that their lives have improved enormously as a result of acquiring cellphones (due to, for instance, online banking). These results, however, should be juxtaposed with the fact that the same poll found that significant majorities of people in emerging economies believe that mobile phones “have had a bad influence on children in their country,” as well as by the fact that the people in the developing world who actually manufacture smartphones typically work in abominable conditions. Moreover, even in the developed world, smartphones have certainly made life more convenient in various ways: they allow us to instantly look up an elusive fact at a moment’s notice, to almost instantly order food and transport, and yes, occasionally, to talk to loved ones on the other side of the globe. The question is: at what cost? 

Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again is a useful addition to the conversation around technology, addiction, and social crisis. Hari’s first book, Chasing the Scream, focused on the science of addiction and the War on Drugs. His second, Lost Connections, examined depression. Stolen Focus addresses our current “attention crisis”: according to data cited by Hari, a typical office worker today focuses on tasks for just three minutes at a time; college students fare even worse, switching tasks on average every sixty-five seconds.

Hari’s interest in the subject is personal as well as scientific. He describes his own experience:

“The sensation of being alive in the early twenty-first century consisted of the sense that our ability to pay attention—to focus—was cracking and breaking. I could feel it happen to me—I would buy piles of books, and I would glimpse them guiltily from the corner of my eye as I sent, I told myself, just one more tweet. I still read a lot, but with each year that passed, it felt more and more like running up a down escalator.”

This mixture of scientific and personal curiosity—as in Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections—leads Hari on a journey all over the world, “from Miami to Moscow, from Montreal to Melbourne,” interviewing more than 250 experts on human attention. His conclusion is that there are twelve “deep forces” responsible for harming our attention. His goal in the book is to explain what they are, and what we need to do to “get our attention back.”

Hari does not attempt to dispel, or even downplay, the significance of the obvious candidate responsible for our attention crisis, namely modern technology: smartphones, email, social media, and, more specifically, Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms’ contemporary model of “surveillance capitalism,” the term used to describe the capturing and analysis of user data in the service of user manipulation and monetization. Indeed, Hari spends large portions of the book emphasizing just how debilitating much of modern technology has been both for individual consumers and for wider society: it has arguably made us (mentally) unhealthier, angrier, and more politically divided than at any point in modern human history.

But Hari draws a clear distinction between the technology itself and the incentive structures underlying them. It is the latter, he notes, which constitute the real, fundamental problem:

“The arrival of the smartphone would always have increased to some degree the number of distractions in life, to be sure, but a great deal of the damage to our attention spans is being caused by something more subtle. It’s not the smartphone in and of itself; it is the way the apps on the smartphone and the sites on our laptops are designed […] It’s not just the internet: it’s the way the internet is currently designed—and the incentives for the people designing it. You could keep your phone and your laptop, and you could keep your social media accounts—and have much better attention, if they were designed around a different set of incentives.” 

As is well known, the current incentive structures of platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok aim to optimize things like time spent on a given platform, number of clicks, and number of advertisements seen. Their skilful efforts to maximize our use of the platforms are clearly a large part of why we’re so often incapable of removing our dazed stare from our smartphones’ screens. At one point in Stolen Focus, Hari interviews Israeli American tech designer Nir Eyal, the author of a book called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Eyal himself recommends individualist solutions to the attention problem, showing people tips for getting their tech addictions under control and encouraging a “personal responsibility” approach to smartphone use. But Hari points out that Eyal is also the author of a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which Eyal calls a “cookbook” containing a “recipe for human behavior.” Eyal describes the techniques of “mind manipulation” used to “create a craving” for a product, such as implanting an “internal trigger” in the user’s psychology, an uncomfortable emotional state that can only be relieved by the product and that will keep them coming back over and over. As Hari comments:

“In Hooked [Eyal] talks about using ferociously powerful machinery to get us ‘fiendishly hooked’ and in ‘pain’ until we get our next techno-fix. Yet in Indistractable he tells us that when we feel distracted by this machinery, we should try gentle personal changes. In the first book, he describes big and powerful forces used to hook us; in the second, he describes fragile little personal interventions that he says will get us out.”

As Hari indicates, the addiction-producing incentives built into tech are far from inevitable. As he puts it:

“[Y]ou could design [technology] … to maximally respect people’s need for sustained attention, and to interrupt them as little as possible. You could design the technology not so that it pulls people away from their deeper and more meaningful goals, but so that it helps them to achieve them.”

Thus, not only is Hari surely right to conclude that “banning surveillance capitalism” is an absolutely necessary step toward reclaiming our attention”—people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked [on tech platforms] can’t focus,” as he neatly puts it—but he is also similarly correct in his suggestion that we should want more: we should want technology to be aligned with our interests, rather than being merely not-misaligned with them. We should, as tech ethicist James Williams has put it, want technology not simply to get off our backs, but to be actively on our side

Hari also goes beyond technological causes. Indeed, much of Stolen Focus’s originality, and in fact one of its great strengths, is that it does not restrict itself to a discussion of the attention-sapping nature of modern technology, but rather emphasizes how other crucial factors like our chronic lack of sleep, worsening diets, and increasingly polluted cities have also harmed our ability to focus. He shows how these factors work together to create the attention problem. Take Hari’s beautifully succinct explanation for the measurable decrease in children’s attention spans:

“We don’t let [children] play freely; we imprison them in their homes, with little to do except interact via screens; and our school system largely deadens and bores them. We feed them food that causes energy crashes, contains druglike additives that can make them hyper, and doesn’t contain the nutrients they need. We expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere. It’s not a flaw in them that, as a result, they are struggling to learn attention. It’s a flaw in the world we built for them.”

The ultimate solutions Hari offers for “healing our attention” are, in my view, extremely reasonable. Some are proffered at the individual level, for instance, “pre-committing” to individual tasks, getting at least eight hours of sleep every night, and taking regular time off social media. Hari himself estimates that, as a result of these individual changes to his life, his own attention was boosted by about 15-20 percent. However, he is clear that such individual solutions can only take you so far; they will not—indeed, cannot—constitute a satisfactory long-term solution. On this point he quotes a telling remark from Williams, who notes that “digital detoxes” and other individual methods are “not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep, at an individual level, certain effects at bay. But it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.”

Thus, Hari believes that it is at the societal level that substantive change must ultimately be made. In particular, other than banning surveillance capitalism, Hari also suggests introducing a four-day work week (to combat physical and especially mental exhaustion) and encouraging children to play freely from the very earliest stages of childhood. Moreover, he makes a persuasive point about how, in the absence of a resolution to our attention crisis, a host of our societal problems will likely remain, including (but not limited to) the climate crisis and the rise in authoritarianism around the world:

“Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them. If we lose that, we lose our ability to have a fully functioning society. … People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions—and less likely to see clearly when they fail.”

Or, to quote Williams: “In order to do anything that matters, we must first be able to give attention to the things that matter.” Indeed, I would be tempted to go further still: to the extent that we are unable to focus, we are, plausibly, unable to meaningfully exist.

One central, inescapable fact remains: for huge numbers of people, smartphones are having a seriously deleterious impact across many aspects of their lives. Not only are they causing mental or physical illness, but, by users’ own admission, they are addictive, and seem to have radically skewed how people spend their time and their conception of what they should consider important in life. But if we conclude—as I think we should—that the costs of smartphone use outweigh the benefits, an obvious question arises: what should we do?

We can answer that question at both the individual and the societal level. At the individual level, the simplest response—which I personally would recommend—would be to get rid of your smartphone. Simple “flip” phones are far less distracting and, typically, also far cheaper than your average smartphone—and, what’s more, they still allow you to call and text your loved ones. Other useful suggestions for minimizing your smartphone use include changing your screen to grayscale, downloading ad blocking software, and even—in the most extreme cases—buying a phone timer “lock box.”

Such individual solutions, however, will not—indeed, cannot—constitute a satisfactory long-term solution to the problem, because the devices in question are being designed specifically to overcome human willpower. As Williams remarked in his 2018 book, Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy:

“What we have … is, on one side, an entire industry spending billions of dollars trying to capture your attention using the most sophisticated computers in the world, and on the other side … your attention. This is … akin to a soldier seeing an army of thousands of tanks and guns advance upon him, and running in a bunker for refuge.”

Thus, it is at the societal level that we must respond. We can first imagine what the most draconian solutions would look like; for instance, regulation of smartphone use in a manner comparable to cigarette use. People could be restricted from using their smartphones except in certain designated areas (comparable to “smoking rooms” at airports). If we followed the cigarette model, warning labels and images would be placed on phones (featuring, perhaps, a helpless child desperately trying to get the attention of their smartphone-addicted parent?) just as some countries place images of dying or deceased smokers on cigarette packets.

Civil libertarians like myself are wary of measures that intrude on freedom, like trying to ban smartphones outright. A more sensible response is possible: we—that is, activists, concerned citizens, relevant NGOs, etc.—could pressure policymakers and businesses to radically overhaul the perverse incentive structures governing the design of these products’ software: those designs which are specifically designed to “hook” the user to the product through the use of features like randomized variable rewards (essentially the same process underlying slot machines) as a means of optimizing metrics like time spent on a given platform, number of clicks, number of advertisements seen, etc. A different set of incentives needn’t have such a deleterious effect on us. More specifically, these designs and underlying incentive structures could be redesigned so as to align more with users’ actual interests and concerns (which might include things like reading more, learning a new language, or fostering genuinely meaningful, i.e., mostly offline interactions with friends and family members). To quote Williams again: “No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘How much time could I possibly spend on social media today?’”

In the absence of any such societal response, however, the onus will be on each individual separately to determine for him or herself what they should do. It is not easy. Anyone uncomfortable with their phone addiction must fight a difficult fight to free themselves from it. But in addition to trying to bring our own personal habits in line with our true values and desires, those of us who believe the social effects are seriously damaging have a responsibility to try to convey our position effectively to those who disagree. We need to make the case persuasively that the increases in convenience, and our occasional use of smartphones to (meaningfully) connect with people, are absolutely not worth the cost of addiction, depression, and, perhaps most importantly, a fundamental rewiring of what makes us human.

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