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What do smartphones and cigarettes have in common?

At first glance, a packet of cigarettes and a smartphone only have a passing resemblance. They are both perfectly des...

Posted: Jan. 9, 2018 8:46 PM
Updated: Jan. 9, 2018 8:46 PM

At first glance, a packet of cigarettes and a smartphone only have a passing resemblance. They are both perfectly designed rectangles that can be slipped into your pocket to stay within reach. Many users will tell you there is something strangely pleasurable about holding a cigarette pack or a mobile phone.

Beyond size, these objects are quite different. One is made of a noxious mixture of chemicals. The other is a compact package of modems and sensors. You smoke one. The other allows you to communicate. One increases your likelihood of getting cancer. The other (as far as we know) does not. And while the top executives of America's tobacco companies testified to Congress in the 1990s they did not believe cigarettes were addictive and harmful when they knew the opposite was true, it's not as if we're even close to having representatives from Facebook, Apple, Google and more in a room claiming that smartphones don't rule our attention and our lives.

While smartphone use is not obviously destroying our physical health, it has become a time-consuming habit, and one that carries a potential threat to mental health. These mental health risks have become so apparent, in fact, that some of Apple's shareholders have urged the tech giant to issue a health warning for their devices and change their systems to allow parents greater control of their children's usage.

This may not be surprising when we consider the enormous impact these gadgets have on our lives. In 2015, the average American checked their phone 46 times each day. Those 18 to 25 checked them 74 times each day. More recent data show that Americans spend five hours each day on their mobile devices.

It's hard to think of a place where we refrain from using phones. According to a 2013 survey, almost 20% of adults in the United States report using their phones in a place of worship, while 12% said they have used their phone in the shower. Nine percent have used their smartphone during sex.

As technology has captured more and more of our attention, some have reported concerns about smartphone addictions. Fifty-nine percent of parents say their teens are addicted to their phones and 50% of teenagers admit to feeling addicted to their mobile device.

Neurological research has found that dopamine, the same pleasure-related neurotransmitter that is released when we engage in addictive, and sometimes compulsory behaviors, can be triggered by smartphone use. The same thing happens when a smoker takes a drag of a cigarette.

Smartphone stalwarts would point out their addiction is not going to damage their body like smoking does. They may be right, but there is mounting evidence that heavy mobile phone use is having an impact on our mental health. Consumers who use smartphones to a problematic extent tend to have higher levels of anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to have impaired engagement at work due to adverse effects on sleep. A recent book by Jean Twenge argues heavy mobile use is behind the increasing rates of depression and suicide among young people.

Apple has defended its technology, saying that since 2008, the iPhone's software has allowed parents to control the content their children can access with their smartphones. In a statement released to multiple media outlets, Apple also said it had new features planned for the future that could enhance these already-available tools.

But if tech companies such as Apple want to avoid becoming pariahs like tobacco firms are today, they will need to do more to change their ways. And consumer information campaigns are not going to cut it; our will is weaker than our attachment to swiping and scrolling. If we really want to break our addiction, we need concrete regulations. Phone manufacturers such as Apple could limit the time we can use devices for or set phones to go to sleep automatically when we are supposed to be sleeping.

Big tech is unlikely to be enthusiastic about these measures. Put simply, the more time we spend staring at our phones, the more money the tech giants make. So, it is currently in their interest to keep us addicted.

But if the demand for less addictive devices remains unfilled by big tech, it will create a massive market opportunity for new companies that are able to create phones that are less addictive. And with the technology in our pockets becoming more advanced, the need for a less addictive alternative will only continue to grow. Across the globe, there are likely millions of parents waiting to buy their kids a phone that won't turn them into a digital zombie.

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