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Our Smartphones, Ourselves

June 06, 2017 • By Menahem Blondheim Our Smartphones, Ourselves

Pathologizing excessive use of smartphones has become as ubiquitous as their usage.  We tend to view the engrossment in the device by teenagers, by our family members, by the folks sitting at that silent neighboring table in our favorite cafe—in other words, by everyone but ourselves—as deeply problematic. In recent years, this grouchiness is losing its amateurish charm and assuming a professional air. There has emerged a serious professional discourse about a damaging smartphone addiction that merits enshrinement in the holy of holies of psychological disorders, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, authorized by the American Psychiatric Association). According to advocates, it is to be listed alongside veteran-certified addictions such as overuse of drugs or gambling. 

My Enhancing Life study has unexpectedly become relevant to this popular and professional debate. Even more unexpectedly, it seems to hint at a potential therapeutic direction. But of course, much more work is still needed, and responses to this blog may help point out errors and suggest improvements, and even alternative paths. 

Most “legitimate” addicts—to drugs, alcohol, gambling, cigarettes (one regrettably can go on)—see themselves as “less addicted” than they really are. Haven’t we heard, time and again: “I can quit smoking whenever I decide to,” followed by failure after failure in attempts to kick the habit? (Ask me, I can tell you about it.) But according to the results of our experiment, the purported cellphone addiction would appear to be different. It is easier to overcome—at least temporarily—than participants expect. Which raises the question: Should we pathologize, formally or informally, excessive cellphone use?

As could have been expected by the “addiction” discourse, few of the participants believed they would be able to hold out for an entire week. Yet all but one completed the week-long withdrawal, which many of them subsequently said was a significant life experience. Interestingly, practically all those who were invited to join agreed to do so, and the list of those that we approached was practically random within a number of high schools (whose populations are divergent). Since the “prize” for participation was not dramatically high—ca. $40—it would seem that completing the experiment was not due to a momentous external incentive. (In fact, cognitive dissonance in weighing the discomfort vis a vis the meager compensation may have been in play.)

There have been other studies that dealt with cellphone deprivation: three clusters of them. Their findings are less upbeat, more pessimistic than ours. How can the discrepancy be explained? One cluster of cellphone-deprivation studies focuses on the hypothetical. Researchers asked users to imagine themselves without their smartphones: to break-down the aspects of life they feared would be most affected, and to imagine the potential mental and emotional implications of the experience. Answers pointed to a very difficult, practically unbearable experience, in many aspects of life. We, of course, are not surprised by these results: they fit the a priori expectations of the participants in our experiment. However, studies of hypothetical deprivation say little about the actual experience of dumping the smartphone. 

Another direction of research focused on the real-life experiences of people who were unexpectedly and inadvertently deprived of their cellphones, in cases such as theft. These unfortunate individuals retrospectively report a harsh and extremely difficult—to some practically unbearable—mental and emotional experience. The difference between these real-life cases and our contrived ones may say something about how crucial control is to individuals, let alone about our universal celebration of human choice. Indeed, an unexpected, unplanned, and uncontrolled deprivation of a central feature of one’s everyday life can be shattering—an existential ordeal. Yet the same de facto change, when willed, expected, and under control, may yield a completely different kind of experience. 

Finally, a third kind of study reported on groups of people who chose to participate in an extreme experience of major deprivation, such as a period of life in the wilderness. Cellphone withdrawal was part of the experience, and here too it was remembered as an extremely difficult and negative element of the overall hardship. It may be that in such studies, the smartphone—given its major role in everyday life—became a symbol for the overall deprivation, a focus of the distance from the normal lifeworld; hence the feeling of acute deprivation with regard to it. But in contrast, our experiment was situated in “normal” life conditions, in which missing the smartphone was the only deprivation.  

This difference may point to a very encouraging explanation for the relatively benign feelings of participants in our experiment. It would go something like this: Precisely the aspects of life that weren’t changed upon withdrawal picked up the slack in attention, time, and energy that otherwise would have been spent on the smartphone. These aspects include greater attention to family and physically-present others, to the physical environment, to content in alternative media (such as books), and even greater attention to oneself—all were actually pleasant surprises. In other words, when the smartphone was absent, alternative activities were embraced, and they yielded gratifications that compensated, to a surprising extent, for missing the cellphone. 

We have not yet conducted follow-up studies, exploring whether the one-week experiment had an impact in the longue duree. But the responses of our teenagers to reuniting with their cellphones were quite unexpected. They were glad to get their phones back, but practically no participants turned theirs on immediately. Most tried to see how long they could have it and not use it. A significant share said—without being asked—that they would not use it as they did previously.

If a short, voluntary, controlled hiatus from smartphone use can be done without causing disruption, or even significant stress, perhaps it can serve as a tool for promoting smarter smartphone use. As we know, even cases of harsh addiction can be overcome in an appropriate environment, and that implies complete quitting. Here much less is asked: a mere week of withdrawal. The period is experienced as benign, and tends to reset attitudes towards the cellphone and patterns of its use, with pleasant surprises about rediscovering and enjoying other life activities. Perhaps our institutional environments—home, schools, religious organizations—can and will assume responsibility for promoting this kind of experience:  one that would appear to be life-enhancing.