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In a relatively short space of time, smart mobile devices have become almost a necessity in our day to day life.  The adoption of these devices increases each year and a recent survey found that ‘70 per cent of Australians own either a smartphone or tablet device’ (Deepend 2014, p. 10), with the majority of tablet owners also owning a smartphone. 

These devices have revolutionised our lives and have had a profound effect on the way we work, play and interact with other people.  They allow for instantaneous access to information from anywhere in the world.  We use them to browse the Internet, check emails and Facebook, get directions, take photos and even find the keyhole to our front door locks at night. 

Through access to an ever growing repository of downloadable apps via online stores like Google Play and the Apple iTunes App Store, the possibilities are virtually endless for these devices.  The Apple iTunes App Store alone has more than 1,157,782 applications currently available for download (Steel Media Ventures 2014). 

With so many features and capabilities surely these devices can only benefit and enrich our lives?

Not necessarily. We have become over reliant on these devices and that dependency is having a negative impact on our relationships, on our work-life balance and on our health.

Today’s smartphones

The very first smartphone can be traced back to The Simon by IBM in 1993.  It was the first phone to couple ‘voice and data services into one package’ (Reed 2010).  However, the smartphones that we use today have their origins with the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007.  Its multi-touch screen, full Internet browser integration and strong operating system revolutionised the mobile phone market (Sanford 2014).  Unlike Palm and Blackberry devices before it, the iPhone was targeted more towards the mass consumer market than business enterprises. 

Google unveiled Android, their new smartphone operating system, at the end of 2007 which gave a solid platform for companies like Samsung, Motorola and HTC to build their smartphone devices on (Staff 2011).  The operating system driven platforms used in these smartphones have now morphed into other devices such as the Apple iPad, Android-based tablets and even as a core for ultra-book computers.

Research suggests that smartphones are now so advanced and versatile when compared to traditional mobile phones, that the key usage of these devices is no longer phone calls and text messages (45 per cent) but now accessing social networking (60 per cent) and email (56 per cent).  Web browsing and mobile gaming were on par with voice calls and texting.  Smartphones provide an instant and feature-rich connection to online content, they keep us connected at all times throughout the day.  But is this constant connection a good thing?

Addiction

‘Our research into the use of smartphones, in particular, reveals how quickly people become reliant on new technology, to the point of feeling addicted’ (Thickett 2011).

Smartphone adoption is ever increasing and with users being more and more absorbed by what they can provide there is a risk of becoming addicted to these devices.  With the average smartphone user spending 7.9 hours per week of their time – just at home – which equates to almost a day and half per month, there is evidence that we are becoming too reliant on this technology (Deepend 2014, p. 15). 

Smartphones allow instant access to the Internet, to games and to social networking all of which have the potential in themselves for addiction.  With the portability and 24 hours access that smartphones provide, they can be seen as an avenue for further addiction. 

For anyone addicted to these services there is now a need for constant, habitual checking of their smartphone.  ‘Checking habits are particularly characteristic of smartphone use’ (Oulasvirta et al. 2012, p. 112). The article also compared laptop usage, noting that smartphone use at any one time was for a shorter time, but occurred much more frequently.  These checking habits are born from a constant need to know what is going on in our environment and a feeling of reward from retrieving that information.

The feeling of reward is facilitated very strongly through smartphones.  They have the ability to provide automated notifications from a number of sources, for example:

· Email;
· Social networking – Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram;
· Messaging/video – WhatsApp, Skype and Viber along with traditional SMS/MMS;
· Mobile gaming – Candy Crush, Draw Something and Farmville;
· Other – news sites and online shopping apps.

Instant notifications coupled with habitual checking of these and other services give immediate acknowledgement and gratification to the user when they are received, but there is also a detrimental effect when information is not received or is unavailable.  This can lead to stress and anxiety. 

In relation to the checking habits of smartphone users, ‘Computer-related addictions, such as those associated with Facebook or email (both recognized by psychologists and in popular media), are abnormal habits where computers (or their content) have become overly strong cues for behaviours’ (Oulasvirta et al. 2012, p. 107).  The reward for knowing and the compulsion to always be alert to what is happening around us will continue to drive overuse of smartphones at the detriment to our health and relationships.

The reward for knowing … will continue to drive overuse of smartphones.

Relationships

Dependency on smartphones is affecting the way that we interact in relationships, in society and with family and friends.  A study of American smartphone habits by LG Electronics (Kersey 2013) has revealed that 77 per cent of users admit to using their devices in bed while with someone else and also using them when spending quality time with family (58 per cent) and friends (62 per cent).

With people leading busy lives these days with long work hours, time spent with family and friends is an important social release and allows people to recover from the work day.  By escaping into smartphone usage during non-work periods ‘you run the risk of alienating those closest to you – your excessive smart phone use sending the signal that you value work or Facebook over them’ (Malone 2012). 

This alienation has the potential to cause relationships to fail through a lack of communication and also a loss of intimacy.  (Malone 2012) found that 15 per cent of owners would rather give up sex than their iPhone.  This detraction from physical and social connections can cause feelings of rejection for those around the smartphone user which in-turn negatively impacts on those relationships.

Work-Life Balance

Overuse of smartphone devices is also blurring the boundaries of our work-life balance.  With access to work email, corporate applications and remote access via these devices people may feel pressured to be always accessible by their employer or customers.  This can lead to longer unpaid hours outside the office and can cut into quality time away from work. 

Checking work emails outside of work hours can cause stress and anxiety for workers who feel compelled to respond to employer requests.  Performing tasks outside of work hours can have an impact at home.  Receiving demanding emails relating to work can ‘affect your feelings and behaviours at home’ (Jacques, S 2013).  This can add strain on personal relationships.

Smartphones can also have a detrimental effect in the workplace with employees bringing and using their own devices.  They have the ability to circumvent any network/Internet restrictions in place by the employer allowing them to browse websites and interact on social networking sites that may have been blocked.  This type of action can lead to a decrease in productivity, can put pressure on other co-workers and in extreme cases of misuse, could be grounds for dismissal.

The impacts on health

An even more worrying issue is the health impacts that these devices have on our lives as we become more dependent and addicted to them.  For someone who has an addiction to cigarettes for example, while health concerns are evident, they are not considered important in relation to the addiction, which can further exacerbate issues related to dependency and worsen health risks.

One aspect of these health concerns is a correlations between smartphone use and vision impairment.  More than 60 per cent of adults spend at least six hours per day in front of digital devices from office computers, to tablets and smartphones (The Vision Council 2013, p. 2).  With an increase in the number of portable devices this percentage continues to increase. 

Digital devices emit blue light and (The Vision Council 2013, p. 3) suggests that this may have an influence on vision problems such as retina damage, macular degeneration and cataracts.  Eye strain is also evident in the majority of heavy smartphone users with symptoms including dry eyes, eye irritation and headaches becoming more widespread.  The constant usage of smaller, back-lit screens which have smaller font sizes, often with lower resolutions, are compounding the problem.

Eye strain is not the only issue when looking at vision impairment with smartphones now being responsible for an in increase in myopia (short-sightedness).  (Innes 2013) reports that British eye surgeon, David Allamby, claims there has been a 35 per cent increase in advancing myopia since the mobile phone popularised in 1997.  Mr Allamby has dubbed the issue, ‘screen sightedness’. 

His research has shown that the average distance from device to eyes is just 30cm, with some users using them from just 18cm away.  This was compared to newspapers and books where users kept an average distance of 40cm from their eyes. With usage increasing, smartphone users now spend more time each day engaged in their devices from close proximity, Mr Allamby predicts that advancing myopia cases could reach 50 per cent within a ten year period.

Would you notice a man with a gun?

The constant need to be checking our smartphones also has the ability to have a physical impact on our health.  Users are no longer fully aware of their surroundings while connected to their devices.  An extreme example of this absorbing nature and loss of sensory functions occurred in San Francisco where a man was shot and killed on a crowded commuter train.  The gunman drew his weapon several times before the shooting occurred with dozens of passengers within metres of the shooter.  However, no one reacted as they were too engrossed in their tablet and smartphones.  It was not until shots were fired that people reacted (Ho 2013). 

Pedestrian / Vehicle injuries

Pedestrian injuries and deaths have been linked to smartphone use and simple tasks like crossing roads, walking down stairs and boarding trains can become hazardous when users are completely oblivious to their local environment.  This issue can be intensified if users have headphones plugged in, taking away another sense of their surroundings.  Harold Scruby, chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia found that ‘one in 10 pedestrians were using a mobile device while crossing the road’ (news.com.au 2013).

one in 10 pedestrians were using a mobile device while crossing the road

Mobile device distraction in automobiles has also been attributed to crashes and fatalities on our roads and specific road rules governing their usage have been introduced in each Australian state.  Alarmingly, it is difficult to determine exactly the prevalence of smartphones in some motor vehicle crashes. 

This is due to the road rules being in place, as it is now not legally in the best interests of a driver to report their mobile usage at the time of a crash (Roads & Maritime Services 2012).  The distraction that these devices have is recognised however.  (AMTA 2014) found that the risk of ‘crash or near-miss’ events increased by up to seven times that of a non-distracted driver.  Reading emails, web browsing and engaging in texting or social media can significantly increase the risk especially amongst young drivers who use technology more frequently.

Smart mobile devices have dramatically changed the way we live our day to day lives and there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that we are becoming over reliant on these devices, in particular on smartphones.  This dependency is having a detrimental effect on our health, relationships and is also blurring the boundaries between work and our social lives.  Whilst they are almost becoming a necessity in our current times, there is a need to monitor just how much we use them and to take measures to reduce some of the negative effects that they have on our lives.

MT

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References

AMTA 2014, AMTA – EME Update, AMTA.

Deepend 2014, Making Digital Work Harder – Australian mobile device ownership and home usage report 2014, Deepend.

Ho, V 2013, Absorbed device users oblivious to danger, SFGate.

Innes, E 2013, Have you got ‘screen sightedness’?, Mail Online.

Kersey, I 2013, America’s Smartphone Secrets Revealed, IntoMobile.

Malone, L 2012, The anti-social network, The Sydney Morning Herald.

news.com.au 2013, Australia’s obsession with smartphones and tablets could be killing us, news.com.au.

Roads and Maritime Services 2012, Mobile Phone usage – Frequently asked questions, Roads and Maritime Services.

Oulasvirta, A, Rattenbury, T, Ma, L & Raita, E 2012. ‘Habits make smartphone use more pervasive’, Personal & Ubiquitous Computing, vol. 16, no.1, pp. 105-114.

Reed, B 2010, A Brief History of Smartphones, NetworkWorld.

Sanford, G 2014, iPhone, apple-history.com.

Staff, V 2011, Android: A visual history, The Verge.

Steel Media Ventures, 2014, App Store Metrics, Steel Media Ventures.

Jacques, S 2013, Mental break: Work-life balance needed for recovery from job stress, Kansas State University.

The Vision Council 2013, Digiteyezed: The daily impact of digital screens on the eye health of Americans, The Vision Council.

Thickett, J 2011, A nation addicted to smartphones, Ofcom.

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