Rhodri Marsden: Loving your smartphone is only human

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Does your smartphone accompany you, like some kind of overly loyal man-servant, on urgent visits to the toilet? During leisurely canal boat cruises over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, do you forego the view of the Dee Valley to nervously monitor your battery's rapidly depleting charge? Did an enthralling game of Zombie Gunship cause you to forget your own wedding?

If you've answered yes to these three questions, then you're probably one of the 3 million or so British adults who, according to an Ofcom survey, class themselves as smartphone addicts. Reluctant to switch them off in cinemas or theatres, compelled to lovingly glance at them while stopping at traffic lights, distraught without their gently glowing presence by the pillow at night; we've supposedly become emotional slaves to these lozenges of connectivity. And for those in the business of scaremongering, it's causing us to slide irrevocably downwards to hell in a digital handcart.

You see studies like this emerge all the time. Often they're pegged to a PR campaign by companies whose services are threatened by smartphone use; sometimes they're solemnly delivered by self-proclaimed experts who, in the next breath, offer pricy online counselling sessions via their website.

But does this compulsion to tinker with a phone really equal addiction? If you're using it to play games, or gamble, or look at pornography, then these are recognised problems that have their own forms of treatment. But the thing that's increasingly demonised is the act of connecting with other human beings; the texts, the tweets, the Facebook chats, the video calls. I'm not ashamed to say that these innovations have brought about changes in my life that are overwhelmingly positive. Yes, this might have caused me to scream "Stop!" at a taxi I've left my phone in, or repeatedly press the "check email" button, or experience the odd "phantom ring" when I've rushed to answer the phone and discovered that I'd imagined it. But it's hardly comparable to whacking heroin into my femoral vein.

Granted, there's a similarity between this kind of behaviour and our use of slot machines; through associative learning we know that, more often than not, a message from a friend makes us feel great. We never know precisely when we're going to receive one, so we keep checking. We're usually disappointed, but occasionally we're not – so we keep doing it. While some psychiatrists are pressing for this kind of behaviour to become a recognised psychopathology, there are many more who believe that you can't be addicted to human contact any more than you could be addicted to hanging out at a social club in King's Lynn.

I keep hearing preposterous phrases like "the more connected we are, the less we connect" being used in relation to this issue, and while it's conceivable that a tiny proportion of people use their phones to blot out reality, for everyone else it's an extension of their social lives, not a replacement. You read similarly smug statements online like, "Well, in the old days we saw people face-to-face and had fun"; if these people would like to email me, I'll send them footage of me socialising and having moderate amounts of fun. It makes for cracking viewing.

I recently attended a Neil Diamond show with my extended family, and after we had said our goodbyes I pulled out my phone and unlocked it. My mum's cousin pointed at me and said – with a note of triumph in her voice – "And that's part of the problem!" I'm still not sure whether she was talking about a widespread social malaise or accusing me of having a dysfunctional personality, but I genuinely don't believe there is a problem. I now look forward to well-meaning but misguided advice that I need to recognise the problem as a first step towards conquering my supposed addiction.

r.marsden@independent.co.uk

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