On excessive smartphone use

By Matt Hamblen


It’s time for a wake-up call regarding excessive smartphone use.

Smart city leaders face implications if they want to push a wide array of city services to smartphone apps, thereby increasing reliance (or over-reliance) on mobile devices.

We’ve all been at a family meal or other gathering where nearly everybody is slouched down, head bent over a smartphone screen. Nobody talks.

At a business luncheon I attended a few years ago, an executive required us all to place our smartphones at the center of the table before eating. The first one to reach for his or her smartphone had to pay the bill. (I made sure it wasn’t me!)

I’ve worried about this problem for a long time, but haven’t really expressed myself. I figured that smartphone use is a little like taking a medicine your doctor prescribes: the value of taking the med is judged to outweigh the possible side effects.

After all, with my various models of the latest smartphone, I was performing a daily miracle of browsing the Internet, texting friends anywhere in the world and composing emails and even news stories about smartphones. I could even take videos and photos for use in stories, often at astounding quality.

But lately, the impact of hours spent on smartphones is more worrisome. Research firms like eMarketer and Deloitte have survey research showing U.S. consumers now spend about three hours a day on mobile devices on average—triple the amount of 2013.

The Wall Street Journal outlined the problems with excessive mobile device usage on Wednesday, the same day that nearly every smartphone maker was showing off new devices at CES 2018 in Las Vegas. Apple last week came under fire from two big shareholders who have urged the company to build tools to help parents control phone use more easily. They also asked Apple to study the impact of overuse on mental health. The two shareholders—Jana Partners LLC and California State Teachers’ Retirement System—control $2 billion in Apple share.

There are apps for smartphone platforms to help users pay attention to the amount of hours they spend on mobile devices, but the question is really how parents and others are going to interpret the data on daily usage that they get.  For city leaders, it might be enough to decide that the most vital data gets communicated through an app used on a mobile device.

It’s not enough to “just say no” to excessive use, but are we going to start shaming people for too much use? A couple of ripping jokes might help a few people consider their habit. Still, I’m really struggling with what the industry is going to do about this problem, which has grown beyond being a subtle concern. More apps to help parents control the usage of their kids, or something else?

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