How being distracted by your smartphone has become normalised

We’re all familiar with the sight of people walking down the street staring into their smartphones. And before it was made illegal in the UK, it was common to see people in their cars talking or even texting on their devices whilst driving...

We’re all familiar with the sight of people walking down the street staring into their smartphones. And before it was made illegal in the UK, it was common to see people in their cars talking or even texting on their devices whilst driving. ‘Phubbing’, or phone snubbing is the act of snubbing someone you’re talking to in favour of your phone. One Science Direct study found that more than 17% of people phub others at least 4 times a day. Phubbing someone is clearly bad manners, but it’s also very distracting for the phubbed who at least should be able to expect your full attention.

Over the last decade, the smartphone has had a profound impact on our lives – and I’m not just referring to how we communicate. Today we use them to order up cabs or takeaways, to listen to music or watch films, to follow the news and take part in social media. Our smartphones keep track of our health and empower us to access our bank accounts while we’re out and about. They enable us to go shopping on a whim or do research on our way to a business meeting. If we’re running late, we can always call or send a text or email. These are all tremendous benefits.

Prior to 1992 when the first smartphone, the Simon Personal Communicator was created by IBM, the benefits listed above could only have existed in someone’s imagination, or perhaps the realms of science fiction. But the other side of the story is more alarming, as expressed by Larry Rosen, emeritus professor of psychology at California State University who wrote: “What I’ve seen in the last six to eight years is a massive paradigm shift – much of the attentional resource that we devoted to our personal ecosystem has been shifted to what’s virtual, that means you are not attending to what’s in front of you. We see this in parenting – you are not focusing on your kids. You’re not even focusing on what you’re watching on television because you’re second-screening. It’s affecting every aspect of our lives, and sadly, I don’t think the pendulum has swung as far as it will go.”

The above is confirmed by a research article published in Frontiers in Psychology in April 2021, “Cumulative evidence has demonstrated that mobile phone distraction, in particular among emerging adults, is a growing problem. Later in the same piece, the authors write: Our findings revealed that mobile phone distraction has a negative and significant association with psychological well-being. So much so that mobile phone usage limits the cognitive ability of the user so that they are not able to focus on daily routine activities which leads to negative psychological well-being.”

Even back in 2018 there was quite a bit of research to suggest that smartphone addiction was affecting the critical ability of young people. The Pew Research Center in the US reported that even then, 54% of teens believed they were spending too much time on their smartphones and 41% said the same of social media. Meanwhile, 15% of parents said they often lose focus at work as they are distracted by their phones. In Japan, an article entitled “Association between mobile technology use and child adjustment in early elementary school age” compiled data from 1,642 first-grade children to see if there was a link between the use of smartphone technology and behavioural development. The researchers found that “routine and frequent use of mobile devices appear to be associated with behavioural problems in childhood.”

In April 2019, the World Health Organization issued strict new guidelines on one of the most anxiety-producing issues of 21st century family life: How much should parents resort to videos and online games to entertain, educate or simply distract their young children?
The answer, according to WHO, is never for children in their first year of life and rarely in their second. Those aged 2 to 4, they said, should spend no more than an hour a day in front of a screen! A Guardian newspaper article published at the end of January 2020 reported from a survey of 2,167 UK 5-to-16-year-olds that “53% of youngsters owned mobile phones by around the age of seven.”

According to a National Geographic article by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, the constant connectivity and access to information that smartphones offer have made the devices something of a drug for hundreds of millions of users. Scientists are beginning to research this phenomenon, but their studies suggest that we are becomingly increasingly distracted, spending less time in the real world and being drawn more deeply into the virtual world. We now habitually rely on our phones and the most compulsive users keep their devices always close to them. At night that means right next to the bed.

As I explained in another piece on this site, smartphones have become capable of supplementing or even supplanting various mental functions. They affect cognition and make it harder to establish interpersonal connections. As well as impacting relationships quite negatively they can also make you more depressed as a result of your attention span being wrecked. There is also evidence that smartphones interfere with sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin, and further evidence that smartphone use causes ‘Digital Amnesia’. When cyber security company Kaspersky conducted a survey of 6,000 mobile phone users, it found that 71 per cent of them couldn’t remember the phone numbers of their children and 87 per cent were unable to recollect the phone numbers of their children’s schools. Clearly smartphones are very distracting.

I write in more detail about all the above here, as well as covering: FOMO, Narcissism and Self-absorption, Feelings of Inadequacy Over Your Appearance and Body Dysmorphia, Depression, Anxiety and Isolation, Cyberbullying, Social Media and Social Delusion, Certainty and Homophily, Distraction, Addiction and the Ability to Cope. Finally, I write specifically about The Effects of Social Media on Attention here.

Of course, the smartphone has wrought many benefits, but as this blog shows, it has also created all kinds of problems that humans have not yet evolved enough to know how to deal with.

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