Phone addiction: we are more connected than ever, but at what cost?

Communication has never been easier nor speedier than it is today, but let’s not lose the ability to converse with one another without using our thumbs

Close up teenage girl friends using cell phones. Getty Images
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I have an old black-and-white photograph saved on my phone (where else would it be?), of a train carriage full of morning commuters. The shot was taken from the rear, looking down towards the front, with two passengers sat on each row on either side of the aisle – there must be 40 or so people in frame, all of them with their backs to the photographer. The scene would have been commonplace in any major city during the 1950s, but something stands out as alien in our so-called enlightened times: every single man and woman in this photograph is reading a newspaper. Now, replace those newspapers with laptops, smartphones and tablets and, while you’re at it, get everyone to dress down and lose the hats. Much more familiar, yes?

I’ve kept that photo in case I need to make a point to anyone who starts moaning to me that people are only interested in staring at their phones, instead of interacting with others who happen to be near them. And yet, there’s an undeniable flaw in my logic. Because a newspaper, once it’s been read, will be disposed of. Perhaps the return journey for those commuters would have been a cacophony of raucous conversation, city workers blowing off steam or exchanging office gossip. Do we ever finish reading on our electronic devices? It’s not really possible, is it?

There literally is no end to the reading material we can avail ourselves of online. There’s no limit to the number of people we can converse with electronically, or to the amount of time-sapping activities we can engage in, if we possess what used to be commonly known as a mobile telephone. But there’s always a limit to how much a friend, relative, colleague or spouse will put up with, if we need to have our smartphones surgically removed from our palms before engaging in conversation.

Most of us have been phubbed some time or other. Phubbing is a phrase that was coined by a team of Australians for a marketing campaign for the Macquarie Dictionary in 2012. It's a fusion of "phone" and "snubbing", and it caught on for a short time, as people started talking about the problem all over the world. But the initial strong feelings expressed by commentators seem to have died away, which begs the question: have we become so used to people blanking others because they're distracted by their phones and other devices that we barely even notice it now? Have we capitulated and rolled over, defeated by an inability to get others to see there's a problem with this behaviour?

It’s easy to cast aspersions and point fingers at people as they sit in silence across from others at a restaurant table or walk, head down, along a pavement glancing up from their screens only occasionally. But if we’re honest in our self-appraisals, perhaps we’re just as guilty. Perhaps we have an addiction, but can’t see the signs.

“One of the women I work with is definitely addicted to her phone,” says Dubai resident Emma Healy, who has become increasingly perturbed by her colleagues’ incessant use of technology. “Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – I’m amazed she gets any work done; she seems to live out her entire life online. Nothing’s secret, I worry about her, but she’s hardly alone. Almost everyone I see is lost in their own world, glued to their phones. I’ve heard the phrase ‘process addiction’ being used to describe this and I agree that it’s a behavioural problem,” she says.

The Cabin, a wellness clinic in Dubai, specialises in the treatment of addicts to all manner of things – and the practice is experiencing an increase in the number of patients seeking help for process addiction, which it describes as "compulsive behaviours that involve actions rather than substances, but still share most components of a chemical addiction". It notes that these addictions are subtler and more "socially acceptable" than their drug or alcohol-based counterparts, but are just as damaging.

Classed as process addictions would be out-of-control gambling, shopping and internet use, but when does a bad habit become an actual addiction? When it deviates from what’s generally considered normal, causes distress to others and negatively affects people’s lives. Another telltale sign is an unwillingness to cease the behaviour for more than a short while. Try telling your husband, wife, children or friends that they have an addiction problem and see how they react – it’s one of those taboo words that nobody likes to apply to themselves, but many of us really are addicted to technology. It’s ruining marriages and dividing families in ways that no books or newspapers ever could.

Naser Al Riyami, an Emirati psychologist based in Abu Dhabi, agrees there are problems with the amount of time we spend online. But he also says that we shouldn’t blame technology the way we often do. “Vilifying smartphones is a mistake,” he advises, “because before these were commonplace we had other distractions – televisions, video games consoles, personal computers, magazines, newspapers. They have all been blamed at one time or other for decays in society. All that’s happened is the method of delivering these experiences has changed.”

He says that the use of modern technology is definitely creating a lot of tension in households, with youngsters tending to withdraw from family circles and isolating themselves with their phones. “The internet is a place for young people to make friends and to be understood. We all need love and connections in our lives and parents are frequently noticing the amount of time their children spend online. There’s always a generational gap when it comes to technology, with older people blaming it for all sorts of things, and this needs working on. In any case, the smartphone is already outdated and virtual reality will soon change everything again.”

Al Riyami warns of the dangers associated with children modelling their behaviour on that of their parents. In other words, as parents we have to lead by example and unplug, whenever possible, from the digital madness. It’s important to be aware of our own habits and keep them in check before they develop into genuine problems. And if our loved ones tell us we’re spending way too much time on them, it’s a good idea to put down those black mirrors and take stock – the internet has revolutionised the way we live, but it’s also making us socially inept. Nothing should ever substitute for real conversation.

Annabel Lynch is a health and wellness coach and qualified psychologist at Dubai's Valiant Clinic in City Walk. She says that people who are spending significant amounts of time online are often escaping from some other problem. "It's often a sign of another, underlying issue," she explains, "and the important thing is to recognise the signs and deal with whatever is causing the behaviour, to get to the root of the problem." Lynch adds that there's no hard evidence that mobile phone use is leading to serious marital or family problems in the UAE. "It's mostly anecdotal; I'm not aware of couples divorcing over their smartphone use, but it definitely helps families to have set rules and agreements, such as not using phones while in bed, perhaps having no-phone zones for children. And I actively encourage people to spend time in the same physical space as their friends, at least once a week. Go around to their house and see them, rather than simply chatting online," she explains.

Helpful advice, all of it, but one thing comes through loud and clear when talking to healthcare professionals about the issue, and that is we all must take responsibility for our own behaviour and the way it impacts those around us. While it’s the simplest thing in the world to get sucked into the online world, never to resurface, it takes effort to interact with others. But it’s effort that’s worthwhile. Communication has never been easier nor speedier than it is today, but let’s not lose the ability to converse with one another without using our thumbs.


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