People use their smartphone to take photos of the L'Oreal fashion show on the Champs Elysees avenue during a public event organized by French cosmetics group L'Oreal as part of Paris Fashion Week, France, October 1, 2017.  REUTERS/Charles Platiau     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1CAB6813E0

By: Zafarullah Saroya

Put down your mobile phone, please?

Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, career or economic status, technology is overtaking our daily lives with every passing day. Phones, computers, tablets and other high tech devices have become not just an object, but for many a best friend. We rely on it to do everything from checking bank balances to investing, from sharing photos of the grandchild to chatting, and so on. Thanks to the smartphone, we can carry out a plethora of daily tasks, right from the palm of our hand. However, in spite of the fact that smartphones have made our lives easier, more fun and more social in important ways, there is also a huge downside to this technology. All the major research findings indicate that when we are totally immersed in social media, we miss out on real conversations and are incapable of original and deep thinking.

Do you constantly check your cellphone for email alerts, Facebook, tweets, news updates, and the weather? There would be hardly a few people who would say ‘no’ to the above question. It’s not our fault. But it is not a disease that can be cured. It is an addiction that cannot be lessened no matter how hard you try. And this smartphone addiction is viral. You will find it everywhere you go.

Smartphone addiction is a real thing, though it may not be an official psychological diagnosis just yet. The percentage of smartphone users who would actually be classified as addicted is estimated between 10 and 12 percent, according to the director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, Dr David Greenfield. Just look at the people hunched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or shop in malls. Observe people in line for coffee, or on a quick break from work, or just driving, or sitting in a restaurant. Visit an airport and you notice a sea of craned necks and dead eyes all staring at the screen on their smartphones. Clearly, we have long passed the days of looking up and around at our world to constantly looking down. Pakistan, too, is no exception to that.

Adam Alter, author of the bestselling book, Irresistible, informs us that most people devote between one and four hours on their phones daily and others far longer across the globe. These people also spend an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones, which is more time than any other daily activity they engage in except sleeping. For Alter, most people have spent a staggering eleven years on their smartphone over an average lifetime. This dependence on our phones is so prevalent that researchers have now coined the term “nomophobia” (abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”) to describe the fear of being without a mobile phone.

In a recently published, highly popular Op-Ed piece in The New York Times: “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain,” the author Kevin Roose confesses to his own addiction with his smartphone. He writes: “I’ve been a heavy phone user for my entire adult life. But sometime last year, I crossed the invisible line into problem territory. My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping. I tried various tricks to curb my usage, like deleting Twitter every weekend and installing app-blockers. But I always relapsed.”

The addiction that Roose is writing about has become a global phenomenon. Many have become so addicted to their smart phones that they find it almost impossible to cut the umbilical chord with them. According to Paul Atchley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Kansas, the reason for our inability to sever our ties with our phones is because we are essentially social organisms. This is why there’s nothing more compelling than social information, which activates a part of our brain that is hardwired to respond to unique sights and sounds. When we hear the sound of a beep, buzz, or a ping from our phone, there’s the implicit promise of new social information – it comes as a stimulus, which not only can’t be ignored but is also so powerful that it will lure us away from whatever activity we may be engaged in.

Although smartphones have made our lives easier, more fun and more social in important ways, there is also a huge downside to this technology. All the major research findings indicate that when we are totally immersed in social media, we miss out on real conversations and are incapable of original and deep thinking.

According to many leading psychologists in the United States, heavy users of smart phones often cannot differentiate between various modes of communication and the result is a landscape filled with disconnection and addiction. According to Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, when we are working and using our phones simultaneously, we get distracted and that prevents us from thinking deeply on the project we are working on. Although we may think that we will be able to check a text or email very quickly and get back to whatever we’re doing, we really can’t. Professor Miller says, “Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch cost. Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

The worst thing is, if we are used to checking our device every few minutes, we may even become susceptible to what is called a “phantom text syndrome,” when we think we hear a text or alert, but there isn’t one. Those of us who think that we cannot disconnect ourselves from our smartphones need to know that technology does make us less effective workers. According to Joanne Cantor, author of Conquer CyberOverload, “Your productivity will shoot up and you’ll give your company much better quality and quantity if you’re not always switching between email and your work…. It is simply because the brain can’t focus on two things at once; so you are always losing your train of thought.”

Overuse of smartphones also leads to several health issues. While one major study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, associated high social media usage to depression, other research findings indicate that social networking with our smartphones has a very high chance of increasing our anxiety level both about how we compare with other people and about being removed from these devices. Additionally, there are dangers of walking into traffic as one checks her/his messages. There is also a new health problem due to our virtual co-dependency called “tech neck,” which can affect many of us since we tilt our heads forward 60 degrees to peer at our phones, putting about 60 pounds of pressure on our neck. There’s also vision fatigue and headaches along with insomnia, which is very common among heavy users of smartphones.

Pakistani society is changing but some of the most significant impacts on it — in terms of access to information, facilitation of businesses and how we interact with each other — are taking place imperceptibly because of ubiquitous smart phones. Smart phone addiction in the country is on the rise and one can assess the situation from a report published in a national daily according to which import of mobile handsets in Pakistan observed a remarkable growth of 15 percent in the first half of fiscal year 2017-18 (July to December). This increase was effected by a growing number of smartphone users.

Recently, Google’s Head of Large Customer Marketing for South Asia, Lars Anthonisen described Pakistan as a fast emerging ‘digital-first country’. He further revealed the fact that currently, more than 59 million people in Pakistan are smartphone-users, and the number is expected to grow in the near future as mobile phone prices have gone down there. Due to the lower internet data prices, the usage of mobile apps is going up.

As per a report issued by GSM Association, by the year 2020, a whopping 90 percent of the Pakistani population will have access to 3G networks while an impressive 80 percent of the population will have access to 4G. This mobile broadband growth would have the effect of flourishing of the smartphone industry. The mobile-broadband-user growth in Pakistan is expected to touch 8 percent mark in the coming years, as the country would have more than 100 million smartphones by 2020.

So, what’s the antidote for the problems associated with our smartphones? Now, there are mobile apps that will help us monitor how much time we are spending on the phone each day. Digital wellness is a budding industry these days with loads of self-help gurus offering miracle cures for screen addiction. Some of those solutions involve new devices such as the “Light Phone,” a device with an extremely limited feature set that is meant to wean users off time-sucking apps.

There are also many self-help books written by experts who offer their advice as to how to take a break from our phones. The authors of these self-help books urge us to spend more time in nature, which may counteract the focus-draining effects of too much time spent on looking at our phones. Other experts recommend that we put our phone on silent mode, and to set our email to deliver new messages only every 30 minutes. Digital Sabbath has become quite popular in the West among many heavy users of smartphones, where the users give their devices a rest for 24 hours over a weekend. Finally, experts exhort us not to carry our phones everywhere we go. The self-help gurus who offer cures for our smart phone addiction are unanimous in their advice: “Don’t be a slave to your smart phone.”

While it’s true that our smartphones have helped us get connected with the whole world and have made our lives easier and more social in important ways, we also seem to have less “genuine” connections with people in our everyday life. We are having fewer quality conversations based on physical presence. Today’s technology has fractured our concentration into smaller bits diffusing them in many directions. As we have become more technologically savvy, we also seem to have lost our ability to live in the present where we can engage in genuine, one-on-one communication. The question is: do we want to live an i-life or a real life? Do we give more attention to a five-inch piece of hardware with no pulse than we give to humans.

How to Break a Cell Phone Addiction

Outsmart your smartphone by using technology to limit your technology use. Want to use your phone less? There’s an app for that. In fact, there are lots of apps for that. The BreakFree app, for instance monitors your phone usage, tallying up the number of times you unlock the screen, how many minutes or hours you spend on your phone, which apps you use the most. The app then gives you a daily addiction score. If your addiction score alone isn’t motivation enough to make you think twice before using your phone, the app also allows you to set up notifications to alert you when you’ve been on your phone for an extended period of time or opened an app too many times.

Get your phone out of the bedroom. There are lots of reasons why you should not sleep with your phone. For starters, using your phone within an hour of bedtime leads to poorer sleep quality and more insomnia. If you check your phone every time you wake up in the night, your sleep is even more negatively impacted. Furthermore, when you wake up and check your phone before getting out of bed, you are reinforcing the habit for the rest of the day. Buy a cheap alarm clock and stop sleeping with your phone by your side.

Put yourself on a digital diet. The same way reducing your waistline involves breaking unhealthy habits and eating more mindfully, reducing your screen time requires similar self-control. When you want to lose weight, you have to stop eating the junk food. When you want to cut back on smartphone use, you have to stop using the junk apps. Delete those deliciously addictive games. Cut back on social networks the way a nutritionist might suggest you cut back on carbs. Quitting technology cold turkey isn’t a realistic option for most people, so this requires some real will-power. Temporarily (if not permanently) deleting your most frequently used apps can be a huge help.

Set up a digital schedule. Assign certain chunks of time throughout the day to go phone free. Experiment with leaving your phone at home when you go to dinner with your friends. Turn your phone off for a couple hours every day at the office so you can work without distraction. Leave your phone in the other room in the evenings in order to spend more quality time with your partner or children.

Get drastic with a digital detox. If you are open to trying something more extreme, Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life, suggests doing a full “digital detox,” where you spend an entire weekend with ZERO access to technology. Notify your loved ones in advance, power your devices off and stick them in a box or a bottom drawer, and ask a trusted friend to temporarily change your passwords to reduce temptation. After the detox, Sieberg suggests reintroducing technology slowly. He swears that a digital diet does wonders for reconnecting with the real world and improving relationships.

Did you know?

The very first cellular phone was invented on April 3, 1973. It was used by an associate of Motorola.
In 1992, IBM revealed a revolutionary device that had more capabilities than its preceding cell phones. This prototype smartphone was known as the Simon Personal Communicator, but it wouldn’t see its way to consumers until 1994.
The irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason is called Nomophobia.

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