Like many people I spend too much time on my smartphone.
As a researcher I like to think I’m relatively aware of my behaviour. I consciously limit my time staring at it, stroking it or waiting for it to bring me jolt of joy in the working day. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago I’d have said smugly “It’s under control”. In the spirit of understanding I downloaded the Moment app which tracks phone use.
Surprise surprise: I was far more reliant on it than I thought. I averaged over an hour a day of screen time, picking my phone up 30-35 times a day.
It’s a useful reminder that our perception is unreliable: actual behaviour is different to self-reported behaviour. When it comes to new tech, I’d argue we are particularly prone to error. We’re learning on the go.
It’s also a prompt to think about the social context of phone use. I don’t intend to be rude. But – like anyone having a conversation whilst scrolling through a feed – I probably am. The technology which connects you to others can also isolate you from them.
There are other unintended consequences. Professor Mary Aiken referred to an ethnographic study on the Today Programme last month as she launched her book The Cyber Effect. Researchers observed parents and their kids in a cafe. Parents were looking at their screens 60% of the time: neither speaking nor making eye contact. She made the obvious point here: the way our children behave depends on the example we set to them. The question parents should be asking is not “at what age should kids be exposed to smartphones” but “at what age should kids be exposed to their parents’ smartphone use.”
As Sherry Turkle and others have observed: phone world puts you first. It promises you’ll never be bored, you’ll always be heard and that you can put your attention wherever it suits you. Is it any wonder most people have more screen time than they intend? Something which I managed to live happily without for the first 30 years of my life now accounts for 5-7% of my waking hours. Joy.
Given I was limiting my screen time already, what is the solution? If unplugging or exercising self-control aren’t options, there’s plenty of paid solutions to help us to use tech more wisely. Browser blockers which limit access to the web; paid versions of apps like Moment give you tips to reduce phone use based your patterns of behaviour.
If all else fails, we can outsource virtue. It just doesn’t feel like much of a solution to me.