“The smartphone’s position at the center of the mobile universe [remains unchanged]. The smartphone continues to reign supreme as consumers’ preferred device for most online actions, as well as for controlling and monitoring a host of daily activities… US consumers are viewing their smartphones more often than ever before… 60% of 18 to 34 year olds admit to smartphone overuse, the highest level of any age group. ” Deloitte 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey
GLOBAL INSECURITY: A BITTER SMARTPHONE REALITY BITES
It seems that the original purpose of phones - to listen to and connect with someone else - has become increasingly ironic now that the phone itself seems to be doing most of the listening. Have we reached peak insecurity when it comes to smartphone usage? Maybe. Many believe that we may very well look back on this period in history as a strange existence where the virtual world was treated, if for a moment, as more important than the real one. Because the power we attribute to our smartphones is phenomenally imbalanced. Even moreso when considering how damning the criticism that has grown around our growing habit has become.
For the last number of years the “race to 5G” has defined the discussion of hotly anticipated mobile phone technology advancements. 5G promises “lightning fast download speeds and less signal lag - advancements that will help develop self-driving cars, factory robots and remote surgery.” Telecommunications technology is set to transform even more of the real world as we know it.
While transformation and innovation is largely welcomed (people want to be able to access things fast, and no doubt it will help us tackle big issues), there are serious misgivings. The conversation around these misgivings about the digital world is getting louder and louder.
“85% of Chinese have suffered some sort of data leak, ranging from their phone number being sold to spammers to their bank account details being stolen.” China Consumers Association
“I'm particularly uncomfortable with my web cam being used as I feel it's unnecessary. I have a program that tells me when it's being activated and it always is when I use Google services.” Siobhan, 28
On a global scale we’re hearing scandal after scandal about the transformative tech (or apps) that we use on our phones. This week the TikTok app came under fire for failing to protect the data privacy of its youngest users. It’s now "agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that it illegally stored data from underage children and refused parents' requests to delete it. Data collected from children under the age of 13 included names, email addresses and, for a period, user locations...."
It sure feels like a boiling point - especially when it comes to data breaches. Another recent harrowing investigation reports that, unbeknownst to over 25 million users, medical apps gave Facebook sensitive information on people’s body weight, blood pressure, period cycles and more.
Yet it’s phenomenally easy to keep the blinkers on and bathe in the awe of how technological advanced our world has become. As Kevin Roose - a journalist who embarked on a journey to ditch his phone and unbreak his brain - writes: “Right here, in my pocket, is a device that can summon food, cars and millions of other consumer goods to my door. I can talk with everyone I’ve ever met, create and store a photographic record of my entire life, and tap into the entire corpus of human knowledge with a few swipes.” These awesome functions undoubtedly distract us from asking fundamental questions - despite the fact that only 13% of people feel in control in managing or securing their data. But many young people are now waking up to how out of control and uncomfortable this all feels.
PERSONAL INSECURITY: DIGITAL MINIMALISM & MARIE KONDO’ING YOUR PHONE
Parents were considerably freaked out as they were warned by media of the “Momo” challenge. It seems young people have never been more exposed to digital dangers. Yet the most prominent and overriding digital danger, it seems, is addiction. We feel paranoid. We feel taken advantage of. We feel lonely. We feel anxious. We feel distracted. We’re obsessed with screen time stats, and more than ever we know that we want to reduce the time we spend on our phones. But we’re still struggling. Our Youth Culture Uncovered 2018 research explored youth’s complex relationship with their phone and found that 74% agreed they “regularly, without meaning to, spend more time online than I’d like to.”
“...I had spent 5 hours and 37 minutes on my phone that day, and picked it up 101 times — roughly twice as many as the average American. ...It’s an unnerving sensation, being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019. ” Kevin Roose
Is youth’s complicated relationship with our smartphones likely to survive the current strains? Last year Google revealed that 70% of its users actually want help balancing their digital lives. A rise in the focus on digital wellbeing seems to be the youth anecdote to these strains, in a bid to reset the balance between the real world and the virtual world.
Some apps, like Instagram, now offer to set daily reminders once you’ve reached a time limit (that you set for yourself), but for the most part, young people are self-regulating.
“My New Year’s resolution this year was to leave my phone in a separate room at night. It’s probably the only resolution that I’ve ever kept because the benefits had such a positive effect on my mood and routine. I now read at night, wake up to a radio alarm clock and truly adore the peace and quiet in my ‘digital-free’ bedroom.” Sarah, 27
Life-hacks that confessed smartphone addicts have been trialling to reduce their screen-time recommend include:
- Setting up mental speed bumps so that you have to think every time you pick up your phone. Roose puts a rubber band around his device and changes his lock screen to show three questions to ask himself each time he unlocked his phone: “What for? Why now? What else?”
- Making your smartphone less attention grabbing and distracting by turning on ‘Greyscale’ - a setting that mutes all of the colour on your screen. (People are also using this setting to save on battery life!)
- Giving your phone the Marie Kondo treatment by only keeping apps that spark joy and contribute to healthy habits - and deleting the ones that don’t. (For youth, it’s not always about cutting phone time, but about improving the time spent on your phone. Often, messaging apps - the lifeline to chatting with friends - are being kept in favour of anxiety-inducing social media apps).
- Disabling push notifications for non essential apps.
- Charging your phone outside your bedroom at night. (Research has shown that abstaining from smartphone use in the bedroom and going on digital detoxes makes you happier).
Boredom, inspired by reflection and digital disconnection, is set to become a sought after state for digital era youth, who are looking to refresh their capacity to focus.