We’ve all seen those earnest, but no less dramatic, illustrations of so-called phone zombies transfixed on their phone screens while missing out on a perfectly lovely family dinner, or, in more extreme cases, while the world burns around them. “Stop! Look around you!” screams the subtext, “can’t you see what we’ve become?” But what have we become, exactly? Are we, as the headlines seem to suggest every couple of weeks, addicted to our smartphones? Why can’t we simply switch off?
The first time I saw one of those memes, I knew something was off. I didn’t feel glued to any of my devices, just quietly dependent on the things they provided me with: seamless navigation, easy communication and, occasionally, a means of documenting a particularly good make-up day. But here these illustrators, studies and journalists were, pleading with people like me to realise that we had a problem and it was high time we admitted it.
That “problem” has since evolved into something much bigger. Now, apparently, it is a woman’s disease, chipping away at our egos with every selfie snap and swipe to the right. Studies with tiny sample groups were coming out by the dozen, with claims that “women are more at risk of smartphone addiction”, and this was only the beginning.
A 2017 study from Binghamton University in New York, which surveyed 182 students, apparently found that women were “most likely to exhibit susceptibility to addiction” to their devices than men were. Data from analytics company comScore released in 2017 also revealed that women spend more time on their phones, but only in the 18-24 age group. But look closer, and you’ll find that these behaviours, wherein young 20-something women spend longer talking to their friends on the phone, or veer towards social media more readily than their male age mates, tend to be a direct result of the way people are socialised.
In the 2012 Pew Research Centre’s Internet & American Life Project: The Demographics of Social Media Users, it’s suggested that one of the main things women use their phones for, is to “gossip” or keep in touch with friends and family, which, loaded connotations of the word “gossip” aside, makes sense.
Generally (although I hope we’re moving away from these practices) men tend to be discouraged from leaning on others for support, or talking to each other about anything that remotely resembles idle chit chat. So couldn’t that, rather than the reductive idea that women are so consumed with vanity that they can’t bear the thought of being switched off, serve as a more logical explanation for the way that different groups use technology?
Either way, there are more and more solutions for dealing with extreme attachments to smartphones. Some more helpful than others. At Apple’s 2018 conference today, for example, a new feature from iOS 12 – Screen Time – will be promoted as the perfect means of sidestepping the temptations of technology. It breaks phone usage right down to the number of times you pick it up, time spent on social media, productivity levels and “downtime”, i.e. how long you leave it alone.
As well as that, Screen Time allows people to restrict the number of apps available to them, or else the time that you can spend on each one. Pretty impressive stuff, if it indeed proves to be effective.
I’ve tried apps similar to Screen Time, and few have worked because I really cannot put my phone down. But it’s not because of some insidious addiction to it, spurred on by social media-induced insecurities. No. The real reason I can’t seem to part with my phone for more than half an hour at a time is because, shocker: I need it. After losing the physical version for the umpteenth time earlier this year, my phone became my oyster card. It is also my alarm, my main means of catching up on the news before I get to work; it is my mirror when I touch up my face on public transport, my provider of podcasts; it tracks my menstrual cycle. And that’s all without mentioning its most basic functions as a phone.
I don’t want to totally dismiss the idea that people can have unhealthy relationships with theirs, however. Social media really does have an impact on people’s self-esteem, especially those who, through no fault of their own, feel more pressure to conform to the unrealistic images and messages it tends to uphold. And even more so for marginalised groups who are regular targets of abuse online.
But to frame it as a uniquely female issue tied directly to our inherent vanity is ridiculous. And it suggests that dealing with relentless abuse or exposure to upsetting things is as easy as getting a grip and stepping away from our cold, rectangular comfort blankets. It isn’t. But if Screen Time or Hold or Moment or any number of phone addiction-curbing methods really are a godsend to some people, so be it.
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