Are Smartphones Bad for Us?

SONY DSCI saw that last week was the eighth anniversary of the day when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld in San Francisco. Smartphones are so ubiquitous today that it feels like it’s been longer than eight years and it’s already hard to imagine a world without smartphones. Certainly something may come along to be even more amazing, but this so far is the transformational technology of the century.

The iPhone certainly transformed Apple. In 2006, the year before the iPhone was introduced they had revenues of $19 billion with the largest product being the iPod at $7.7 billion. Last year Apple had revenues of $182.8 billion with the iPhone producing revenues of $102 billion. iPods were still at a surprising $2.3 billion (who still buys iPods?).

There were smart phones around before the iPhone from companies like Palm and Blackberry. But the packaging of the iPhone caught the eye of the average cellphone user and the smartphone industry exploded. One of my friends bought an iPhone on the day they came out and I remember being very unimpressed. I asked him what it did that was new and the only thing he could come up with FaceTime – but he didn’t know anybody else who had an iPhone at the time and we couldn’t try it. The original iPhone didn’t have many apps, but that void was quickly filled.

Now that smartphone usage is ubiquitous in the US, we are starting to see studies looking at the impact of using them. Not all of these studies are good news.

Researcher Andrew Lepp at Kent State University looked at how smartphones affect college students. Lepp’s study found that frequent smartphone usage can be linked to increased anxiety, lower grades and generally less happiness. Students who are able to put down their phones are happier and have higher grades. Lepp’s study also showed, unsurprisingly that students with the highest smartphone usage have worse cardiovascular health – meaning they are in worse physical shape.

Researchers at Michigan State found that work-related smartphone use after 9 PM adversely affects a person’s performance the following day. They found that not taking a break from work results in mental fatigue and lack of engagement the next day. Researchers at Florida State found similar results and postulated that the smartphone backlighting interferes with melatonin, a chemical that regulates falling asleep and staying asleep.

The statistics from various surveys on smartphone usage are eye-opening:

  • 80% of all smartphone users check their phone within 15 minutes of waking.
  • Smartphone users with Facebook check Facebook an average of 14 times per day.
  • A scary 24% of users check their smartphone while driving.
  • 39% of smartphone users use their smartphones in the bathroom (I have no idea what this means).

My own theory is that smartphones do so many different functions they can feed into many different versions of addictive behavior. People can use a smartphone and get addicted to playing games, or addicted to texting their friends, or addicted to using FaceTime, or addicted to reading sports scores and stories.

It’s not like addiction to technology is new. We all remember people who got addicted to early computer games. Perhaps there is still somebody today in their basement addictively playing Pong. There are many stories of people before smartphones who texted thousands of times per day. These early studies don’t surprise me and I am sure that many more studies will describe even more woes that can be added to the list of how technology can be bad for us.

Okay, I admit I use my smartphone in the bathroom – it’s a good chance to catch up on tech news. But that’s it. I swear!