The Smartphone as Our New Cigarette

Smartphones are addictive, according to a study from British telecom regulator Ofcom. Like many other studies on the topic, it emphasizes that people do such things as use handsets in bathrooms in lieu of talking to their children and points out how the devices are changing social behavior. The press release on the research, issued on Thursday, five times uses the word addiction in a variety of forms, including when it says 37 percent of adults and 60 percent of teens admit they are "highly addicted" to smartphones.

Why wouldn’t they be? Thanks to apps such as Twitter, texting, and even e-mail, we are assured that someone is out there on the other end, listening to us and caring about us. If the repercussions of such easy, electronically limited socializing mean that we have less time for reflection or less time for dull or difficult conversations with those who are standing right in front of us (one in 10 iPhone users admit to breaking off a relationship via electronic means, according to TeleNav), then it’s worth asking what this means for people, society, and business. I will confess to sitting in the car, texting away in the front seat instead of interacting with my family or instigating yet another round of campfire songs.

My employer and I benefit at the expense of my family—although my husband may not miss my singing—as indicated by Ofcom’s results. From the survey: "Thirty per cent of smartphone users say they regularly take part in personal phone calls during working hours, compared with 23 per cent of regular mobile phone users. However, smartphone users are more likely to take part in work calls while on holiday or annual leave. Seventy per cent say they have ever done so, with a quarter (24 per cent) admitting to doing so regularly, compared with just 16 per cent of ordinary mobile-phone users."

Answering the Phone When Nature Calls

So productivity is boosted by partaking in our new addiction, but at what cost? Here the survey disappoints. It spends a lot of time focusing on the use of the technology: "The vast majority of smartphone users (81 per cent) have their mobile switched on all of the time, even when they are in bed, with four in 10 adults (38 per cent) and teens (40 per cent) admitting using their smartphone after it woke them. Over half (51 per cent) of adults and two-thirds (65 per cent) of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socializing with others, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of adults and a third (34 per cent) of teenagers have used them during mealtimes, and over a fifth (22 per cent) of adult and nearly half (47 per cent) of teenage smartphone users admitted using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet."

We do not, however, know how this will affect people. Can we trace massive e-coli infections to people tapping away on smartphones that have been transported from the bathroom to the dinner table? Can we say if those teens are texting with their parents while socializing with friends? Can we show that today’s toddlers and pre-schoolers are irreparably damaged by their parents sending e-mails or tweets instead of talking to their little darlings? Ofcom doesn’t say. In truth, we don’t know.

What we do know is that this shift and "addiction" is driving people to spend more money and time on these devices, which can be a double-edged sword for mobile operators, but in general is good for the entire mobile ecosystem. The survey notes that, "while it took 15 years for half of the U.K. population to get a mobile phone and 14 years to get multichannel TV, newer technologies such as online catch-up TV and social networking websites reached this landmark in just four years." People consuming mobile and IPTV or multichannel TV services also spend 12.8 percent more in real terms than they did a decade ago, a figure that has actually declined since 2005.

More Than Smartphones, It’s the Web

The addiction to smartphones is just one example of the spread of broadband into everyday life. The Ofcom survey does spend time on that shift as well, which is much deeper and more pervasive than mere smartphone addiction. Those broadband-connected devices will change our society and require us to adapt in ways that may be harmful in some cases and beneficial in others.

Rather than using such words as "addicted" and emphasizing how much time people spend on smartphones, it might be better to focus on how broadband, like electricity, will change the way people live and the businesses they can build. Sure, electricity used to be considered harmful in some circles (I have a grandparent who considered air conditioning a sign of declining civilization), but it enabled many new industries and changed the way we live. So while smartphones may be addictive, they also mark a new era that will generate fresh opportunities and shift the way society behaves. We are only just discovering how.

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