6 years ago

Smart phones -- from necessity to addiction

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For a long time, telephone density (teledensity) used to be considered as an important indicator of development. In 1970s, most of the advanced countries attained more than 90 per cent teledensity. On the other hand, in most of the developing countries, it was less than 3.0 per cent. Even in the mid 90s, teledensity in India was around 1.0 per cent. During that time Bangladesh had less than 1 million telephone lines for 140 million people. But the advent of mobile phone and market-led reform speedily changed the scenario. Rapidly mobile phone penetration increased reaching over 70 per cent by the end of 2010 in most of the developing countries. Easily accessible and affordable mobile phones served the important purpose of communication connecting even remote villages of developing countries with the global community.

Over the years, the mobile phone handset has grown from a basic communication device to multipurpose gadget, taking the new name: smartphone. And being connected with the Internet, it has also opened the window of diverse contents and services. Consumption of some of the contents and services through smartphones over mobile broadband has been found to be counterproductive and addictive in nature raising serious concern. 

Research findings have started to uncover shocking facts: smartphones are draining our brains. The findings have been revealed by a group of researchers from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin, USA. They conducted experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users in an attempt to measure its impact on creativity and cognitive capability. It was found that just having a phone within easy reach reduces peoples' ability to focus and perform tasks. "The mere presence of their smartphones was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity," said a researcher.

Due to continued delegation of manual jobs to robots, demand from human workers for creative and cognitive skills (such as problem-solving and action planning, and creative expression, linking creativity to action) is on the rise. But smartphone is draining our cognitive ability. Particularly, the young generation is highly vulnerable to the usages of smartphone, which have been found to be addictive in nature. In an open letter, two major investors of Apple have pointed to numerous studies which suggest excessive phone use can disrupt lessons, harm students' ability to concentrate on school work and deprive them of sleep. It has also been mentioned the impact of "heavy use" of social media on self-esteem and its potentially strong influence to cause childhood depression.

As a human race, creative and cognitive capabilities are our most powerful strategic tools to deal with unlimited challenges to support our progression. Increasing erosion of this capability caused by smartphone is a grave concern. Many of the mobile game makers are using smartphone features to design virtual living like characters (with a sense of environment) to attract attention of teenagers, even kids-- making them virtually addicted to those games. Smartphone apps are addictive by design. They take advantage of human weaknesses to ensure our constant attention-taking control of innate psychological biases and vulnerabilities. Ad-view based revenue model is driving innovation of apps, sites and devices to be as addictive as possible to increase the number of users. Children are increasingly being targeted as the next generation loyal (addicted) users.

Expressing concern on long-term impact of technology such as smartphones and social media on children, former Facebook President Sean Parker described the site as made to exploit human vulnerability, saying: "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains." Several studies have revealed negative effects on children's mental and physical health caused by excessive use of smartphones and social media that range from distractions in the classroom and to risks of depression, even suicide. It's quite disturbing to note that to diffuse such addictive behaviour, some mobile operators in developing countries are offering Facebook type social media access over mobile network virtually free.

Now, should we take serious steps against this socially acceptable addiction, destroying intellectual capability of the next generation? Social media addiction and pornographic entertainment among the youths appear to be the key driver of growth of global Internet traffic-- as high as 45 per cent annually.

Often smartphone density and mobile Internet penetration are being considered as the success factors of progression, particularly in developing countries like Bangladesh. While there is no arguing the point, it is true that with increased mobile penetration, the downside of smartphone and mobile broadband is also taking an alarmingly heavy toll. Reflecting on this shocking impact, a report published in The Economics Time of India says, "Psychiatrists and counsellors say that the number of people being treated for mobile addiction -- mostly students in the age group of 13-24 -- has shot up anywhere between 75-100 per cent and above in the last one year alone -- and looks likely to jump multifold in the coming years." Meanwhile, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that university students used mobile phones for 5 hours every day, which accounts for 22 per cent of the whole day.

There is fear among experts that mobile addiction is only likely to get worse as smartphone penetration deepens along with the increase in data consumption. For example, in Bangladesh, smartphone penetration rate grew by 33 per cent in 2016, so did the Internet data consumption growth -- reaching 486 Gbps in Sept 2017 from 186 Gbps in Dec 2015.

Should we be happy or concerned with such growth pattern? Although mobile phone penetration significantly addressed the communication needs in a very short time, smartphone-centric mobile Internet is creating serious concern due to its non-productive usage. There is no denying that smartphone and mobile broadband have significant potential to address our pressing development issues. But the prevailing scenario calls for regulatory actions and social capacity development to counter the negative consequences. 

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D is academic, researcher and activist on technology, innovation and policy. [email protected]

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