Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Distracted, Dangerous and Dumb: Why it Might Be Time to Check Our Cellphone Use

Chances are, unless you’re living deep in the mountains or at a geriatric home (located deep in the mountains, staffed by fellow geriatrics), your world is populated by people glued to cellphones and other technology. A while back, we wrote about a survey that found the average American spends 2 hrs 38 mins every day on his or her phone or tablet…doing pretty inane stuff: mostly checking Facebook and playing games. A further while back, Joe Kraus cited research that suggests cellphone use is making us stupid. We lose 10 IQ points when we multitask–what we’re doing when we pingpong between checking our Facebook status and filling out that spreadsheet for work every few minutes. This loss is no small sum for us non-Mensa members. Worse still, the more we multitask, the worse our ability to monotask–i.e. focus on one thing–becomes.

Here are some other awesome consequences of our tech obsession:

  • A Kent State University study found that of the 500 students observed, “high frequency cell phone users tended to have lower GPA, higher anxiety, and lower satisfaction with life (happiness) relative to their peers who used the cell phone less often.”
  • According to the National Safety Council, there is a cellphone related car accident every 30 seconds (~335K this year alone). The NSC reported 3331 distracted related deaths in 2011; 12% (350 fatalities) were explicitly attributed to cellphones. Experts believe that number is far higher given that 50% of fatalities were for reasons unknown.
  • Studies conducted at the University of Essex found that the presence of a cellphone, even when not used, affected subject’s ability to connect on a deep level and find empathy for his or her partner.
  • University of Maryland study found that people who used a cellphone, even for a short period, were less likely to engage in “prosocial” behavior, which is defined as behavior intended to benefit another person or society as a whole.
  • A Boston Medical Center study observed how cellphone use affected parenting. They found that 40 out of the 55 caregivers studied used their phones during meals, and that children were more likely to act out with caregivers in direct proportion to the level of the caregiver’s absorption with the phone.

If the constant use of our cellphones and other tech is such a time suck, if it’s making us stupid, if it’s compromising our safety, if it’s making us lousy friends and parents, why the hell do we do it?

Louis CK has a couple theories.

In the above video, CK tells Conan O’Brian why he doesn’t want to buy his daughter a cell phone even though other parents do it. “Just because the other stupid kids have phones doesn’t mean that–oh, my kid has to be stupid otherwise she’ll feel weird.” He explains why doing so is particularly deleterious to a chid’s ability to develop empathy. He says:

I think these things are toxic, especially for kids…they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’

An assertion that accords with the University of Essex study.

Social acceptability, unfortunately, is not the end of the story. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that our overuse of technology is no mere habit, but a symptom of an addiction. Studies have found that people sleep with their phones, get panicked and go into withdrawal without them. The addiction, like one to heroin or Oreos, might be salving that existential hole, that fear of being still and alone with our mortality, Louis CK alludes to. (Or maybe we’re waxing a bit too grandly).

So what do we do?

In his quest to kick heroin, Miles Davis was said to have locked himself up in his dad’s barn for a week, sweating and struggling it out. Fortunately, there might be a more incremental way to stop chasing the technological dragon:

  • Cultivate awareness. Check yourself frequently to see if your use of technology is taking you away from the present moment. Sometimes the present moment calls for a phone call or checking your GPS. But quite often, what’s going on around us in our immediate environment–talking to friends, being with our children, walking in the park, doing a work task, doing nothing–is more important than whatever we’re doing on our phones. If you’re mindlessly using technology, stop.
  • Go techless. Leave your phone at home. Don’t pack a tablet. Get away from backlit screens. It might feel uncomfortable for a while. Your brain is detoxing. If people like your spouse are accustomed to reaching you at any time, let them know you won’t have your phone. It’s okay. The world will not fall off its axis.