Smartphone use
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Smartphone addiction is becoming Britain’s latest affliction

Whether you see your friends on their phones checking social media while you’re having dinner together or you witness strangers hunched over screens while crossing a busy road, it is virtually impossible not to notice how omnipresent mobile phones have become in daily life. Along with this trend, it seems as though a new national affliction is taking hold of Britain: smartphone addiction.

Instead of fizzling out as a technology, the popularity of mobile phones has instead increased over the years. 54% of the population in the United Kingdom could not live without their phones for more than two days before it started to really bothered them, according to a recent survey conducted by YouGov, and 55% admitted to checking their phones over dinner. The study also found that excessive smartphone use was more prevalent among 18 to 24-year-olds, of which almost a quarter said that they couldn’t handle being without their phones for four hours. While this YouGov research does not reveal the precise extent of smartphone addiction in the UK, it clearly highlights an increasing dependency on mobile phones. But why is this the case?

With the many benefits that smartphones provide, it is hardly surprising how reliant we have become on them. The convenience of contactless mobile payment, the precision of mapping apps, and the ease of communication through social media have allowed mobile phones to become easily accessible sources of information in day-to-day life. As one student put it: “On my phone I have everything I need in one place, and I can take it wherever I go.” It’s especially convenient for university life. The ‘My Warwick’ app performs multiple functions, from alerting you on upcoming deadlines to scheduling when the next U1 bus will come. And for international students, smartphones are extremely useful in enabling them to stay in touch with their families abroad through apps such as FaceTime and Skype, “without the extortionate phone bills”.

It may appear as though mobile phone addiction is something that should just now be accepted, given smartphones are recognised as a necessity for the modern student. Yet there should be some cause of concern on the overuse of these technologies and the impact it can have on students’ wellbeing and health. Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that the radiating light from mobile phone screens suppresses the release of melatonin – a hormone that regulates sleep. As the YouGov figures demonstrate, young people have become accustomed to using their smartphones constantly throughout the day, with two in three people using their smartphones in bed at night. Two post-graduate economics students thought this was “deeply disturbing” and “troublesome” as it could further impact university students’ frequently irregular sleeping patterns.

The radiating light from mobile phone screens suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep

However, this statistic was “not entirely unexpected” to many. An undergraduate studying a languages degree at the University of Warwick suggested that despite having an awareness that mobile phone usage before bed can be detrimental to sleep, the practice may be widespread due to “a fear of missing out on what friends are doing”. These anxieties, around ‘the fear of missing out’, may be reinforced by the very nature of social media. In particular, social media can provide a platform through which we put ourselves in the spotlight and compare ourselves to friends and acquaintances. This may give rise to insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, as well as a need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to protect our sense of identity and self-esteem.

On these social media platforms, which are increasingly accessed through our mobile phones, we also receive validation from friends and family through comments, shares and likes. This positive feedback may be perceived as pleasurable due to the release of dopamine when we receive a message and, as such, elevated levels of social media consumption have been associated with addictive tendencies. According to Sean Parker, an early Facebook investor, social media was designed to entice further use by finding a way to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible”.

In light of these facts, the increasing use of social media, and hence, mobile phones, was generally perceived as worrisome. Aside from the consequences for our health, some students were also concerned about the impact of increasing smartphone use on our social interactions. One student suggested that: “In a group, when one person takes out their phone, everyone else follows.” They felt that these group dynamics could have a negative impact on the level of social interactions, as they felt that the use of mobile phones could impede face-to-face communication.

In a group, when one person takes out their phone, everyone else follows

However, another business undergraduate did not perceive the ubiquity of mobile phones as bothersome in group activities. Instead, she proposed that while mobile phones can sometimes disrupt one-on-one conversations, ultimately people are “free to do as they like”. Aside from the health and social aspect, students also considered the impact on academic knowledge and skills. It has been recognised almost universally that mobile phones facilitate access to information by means of the internet, and hence can be viewed as a medium through which students are able to find facts and statistics with relative ease.

An economics student at the University of Warwick proposed that we should cut down on the use of smartphones as they affect “people’s ability to think critically”. An example they cited was the all-too-common habit of reading film reviews directly after coming out of a movie in the cinema. This, they suggested, “deprives people of the opportunity to develop their own opinions”. Instead, people may rely on the ideas of others, shared via social media, to inform their own views. Usually, this would occur by evaluating opinions in terms of a simplistic “agree or don’t agree” response. One might propose that this form of confirmation bias could promote narrow-mindedness in lieu of an accepting and culturally literate community.

We should cut down on the use of smartphones as they affect people’s ability to think critically

Concerted efforts have been made across secondary and higher education institutions across the UK to evaluate both the benefits and drawbacks of mobile technology in an educational setting. Even so, schools and universities are free to set their own policies regarding mobile use. This has resulted in most UK schools and universities regulations falling somewhere along the spectrum that ranges from outright bans to the inclusion of mobile technology as part of the learning experience.

It is interesting to note the different stances taken on smartphone use across the world. For instance, the French government implemented a law banning the use of mobile phones in primary and middle schools throughout the country. Under the new legislation, which was applied starting this September, school children aged eight to fifteen are allowed to bring their phones to school, but must keep them switched off and out of sight. This measure is meant to combat cyberbullying and prevent students from getting distracted in class.

This legislation has drawn mixed reactions from the French public. One student from Sainte-Marie school in Aubagne fully supported the ban, arguing that it would improve social interactions among friends whereas staff recognised the logistical difficulties in implementing the new policy. Additionally, parents were concerned about their children’s wellbeing on the way to and from school. For instance, one mother stated that she wanted her daughter to “have a phone with her [for] reassurance”. This suggests that despite the recent legislation, the French public is divided as to whether a ban on mobile phones in education is the correct response to excessive mobile phone use.

Similar deliberations have occurred in the United States. In 2015, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, reversed a decade-long ban on smartphone used to enable parents to stay in touch with their children and ended the inequity of the current ban, which could only be strictly enforced in schools with metal detectors, typically found in low-income communities. Instead of the ban, de Blasio decided that schools should design “a cell phone policy tailored for the unique needs of their students”.

New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, reversed a decade-long ban on smartphone used to enable parents to stay in touch with their children

Considering all the perspectives and facets that have been raised, it seems as though students are well aware of both the benefits and downsides of our increasing mobile phone use, but perhaps slightly more so of the disadvantages of excessive consumption. However, in light of this awareness, it was surprising that while many students believed they would benefit from reducing their reliance on smartphones, few proposed or implemented any concrete measures to achieve this.


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