WHAT HAP­PENED TO SMART­PHONES?

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - News -

We used to love smart­phones. We used to wait in line for them and dress them up in pretty cases and show them off to our friends. Many of us still do, but things seem . . . dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple are us­ing words like in­va­sive, co-de­pen­dent, junkies, ad­dic­tion – se­ri­ous lan­guage meant to sug­gest our to­tal sub­mis­sion. In the last six months, a back­lash against smart­phones has arisen from all cor­ners of the coun­try from lu­mi­nar­ies and mu­si­cians and even for­mer tech ex­ec­u­tives. Now, for the first time, sev­eral of them have spo­ken to Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics about why, ex­actly, they chose this mo­ment to use their con­sid­er­able power to try to stop de­vices from turn­ing our so­ci­ety into a Mad Max hellscape.

“Last year was a piv­otal year in our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy,” says au­thor Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, who in Jan­uary re­leased an app called Thrive, in part­ner­ship with Sam­sung, that tem­po­rar­ily halts phone no­ti­fi­ca­tions. “For many, the un­fold­ing story of how tech­nol­ogy was used to un­der­mine our elec­tions served as a wake-up call. But there’s a wider story that had been bub­bling up in the zeit­geist for a few years, as tech­nol­ogy ac­cel­er­ated the pace of our lives and has made it seem like we were liv­ing in ser­vice of our de­vices rather than lever­ag­ing tools to make our lives bet­ter.”

In Jan­uary, Jana Part­ners, a pri­vate eq­uity firm and one of Ap­ple’s largest share­hold­ers, co-wrote a letter to Ap­ple de­mand­ing that the com­pany help par­ents mit­i­gate the ef­fects of smart­phone use on chil­dren. Charles Pen­ner, a part­ner at Jana Part­ners, told us, “Com­pa­nies can do things that both in­crease their own value and en­hance value to so­ci­ety. An ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is the en­vi­ron­ment you now have com­pa­nies re­spond­ing to the fact that cli­mate change is no longer a the­o­ret­i­cal risk. We thought the same thing was likely to hap­pen with tech­nol­ogy. Pop­u­lar per­cep­tions of tech­nol­ogy are chang­ing for the worse. Risks that peo­ple used to think are the­o­ret­i­cal are start­ing to show up in real ways.”

And then there’s the rock-and-roll ra­tio­nale: “We think you’ll en­joy look­ing up from your gad­gets for a lit­tle while and ex­pe­ri­ence mu­sic and our shared love of it IN PER­SON,” Jack White said in his an­nounce­ment (also in Jan­uary) that fans would be ex­pected to lock away their phones in Yondr cases at his fu­ture con­certs.

If smart­phone back­lash were the juic­ing move­ment, we’d have reached peak co­conut-kale acai bowl with goji berries. More than 600 schools across the coun­try are us­ing those Yondr cases, neo­prene pouches that tem­po­rar­ily lock phones away us­ing a mech­a­nism some­what like those old shoplift­ing-de­ter­rent tags. Last year, Nokia re-re­leased the dumb­phone it first put out in the year 2000. It sold out in a week. And in De­cem­ber 2017, Face­book (Face­book!) pledged R12 mil­lion to­ward study­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween me­dia tech­nolo­gies and well-be­ing.

Why the (rel­a­tively) sud­den de­mon­i­sa­tion of ev­ery­body’s fa­vorite ap­pendage? In look­ing for an an­swer, my first stop, as usual, was science I called a bunch of re­searchers and asked if there was any hard ev­i­dence that might have sud­denly swayed pub­lic opin­ion.

“I can’t think of a sin­gle study that com­pellingly demon­strates that this has some­how changed our brain,” says Ja­son Chein, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Tem­ple Univer­sity who re­cently wrote a pa­per that re­viewed 100 sci­en­tific stud­ies on the topic.

Lind­say Squeglia, a psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor at the Med­i­cal Univer­sity of South Carolina, runs the Mo­bile Tech­nol­ogy Work­group for the Ado­les­cent Brain Cog­ni­tive De­vel­op­ment (ABCD) study, which prom­ises to be the largest lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of brain de­vel­op­ment and child health ever un­der­taken in the United States. Sup­ported by R35 mil­lion from the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Health, re­searchers

have been en­rolling 10 000 nine- to ten-year-olds since late 2016 and will fol­low them for a decade to de­ter­mine how so­cial me­dia and smart­phone use, along with a host of other fac­tors, af­fects aca­demic achieve­ment, emo­tional func­tion­ing, and brain de­vel­op­ment.

“It’s flashy to say that this is ru­in­ing our kids’ tra­jec­to­ries, and it al­ways gets you on the front page of the pa­per, or on the To­day show,” Squeglia says. “I take a much more un­bi­ased ap­proach. It al­ways ends up some­where in the mid­dle, right?”

In­deed. Sci­en­tists are study­ing mo­bile ad­dic­tion fever­ishly, but there is not one sweep­ing con­clu­sion I could point to as the cause of the back­lash. It’s all in­ter­est­ing, though: One study pub­lished last year in the Jour­nal of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Con­sumer Re­search found that the far­ther away a stu­dent’s smart­phone was dur­ing tests of work­ing mem­ory and fluid in­tel­li­gence, the bet­ter he or she per­formed even though the phones were on si­lent and the stu­dents re­ported not think­ing about them at all. Oth­ers have found that con­ver­sa­tions held in the ab­sence of smart­phones are over­all bet­ter (Misra et al., 2014), and that tak­ing a photo of a piece of art re­duces the like­li­hood that you’ll re­mem­ber it later (Henkel, 2013). And yet: In 2016, Dutch re­searchers He­len Vossen and Patti Valken­burg found cor­re­la­tions be­tween heav­ier so­cial me­dia use and in­creased em­pa­thy in pre­teens. And a 2012 pa­per by Chi­nese re­searchers Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong found that peo­ple who mul­ti­task with lots of dif­fer­ent me­dia might make faster, smarter sub­con­scious de­ci­sions about their en­vi­ron­ment.

So, early con­clu­sion: Science is not be­hind the back­lash. (In­ter­est­ingly, the Jana Part­ners letter to Ap­ple did cite two sci­en­tific ex­perts, but one is a very loud re­searcher out of San Diego State Univer­sity who has been sell­ing books about the im­pend­ing doom of the next gen­er­a­tion since at least 2006 be­fore the iphone was re­leased.) It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber, though, that science some­times takes a long time to fig­ure out ex­actly how hu­mans are screw­ing our­selves up. Our col­lec­tive feel­ing of un­ease about smart­phones prob­a­bly stems from some­thing real.

Even­tu­ally, the ABCD study that Squeglia is work­ing on could give us some ev­i­dence. The kids come in for an­nual brain scans, in­ter­views, and tests of mem­ory and at­ten­tion. “We col­lect DNA to look at ge­netic in­flu­ences, and saliva sam­ples for hor­mone analy­ses,” Squeglia says. They’re very thor­ough: The re­searchers in Squeglia’s group are even de­vel­op­ing an app us­ing Ap­ple Re­searchkit and An­droid Stack that will col­lect in­for­ma­tion about how of­ten the kids use their smart­phones, so they won’t have to trust un­re­li­able self-re­ports.

In the end, we may find out that smart­phones are the new comic books, ter­ri­fy­ing older gen­er­a­tions with their new­fan­gled un­se­ri­ous­ness. Or we may learn that smart­phones are the sugar of so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, un­der­min­ing our men­tal health in un­prece­dented ways. Prob­a­bly both. For now, tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, on trial in the court of pop­u­lar opin­ion, are of­fer­ing pre­emp­tive so­lu­tions. “Most of the stake­hold­ers are re­spond­ing,” says Huff­in­g­ton. Ac­cord­ing to Mark Zucker­berg’s earn­ings call for the last quar­ter of 2017, Face­book is show­ing “fewer vi­ral videos to make sure peo­ple’s time is well spent, re­duc­ing time spent on Face­book by roughly 50 mil­lion hours ev­ery day.” Ap­ple has promised to re­lease new, more “ro­bust” parental con­trols, a re­sponse, in part, to the open letter. (In a call, an Ap­ple rep­re­sen­ta­tive also pointed out that par­ents can per­ma­nently turn on the Do Not Dis­turb While Driv­ing func­tion on cur­rent iphones, as well as mon­i­tor the us­age of dif­fer­ent apps by look­ing at the rel­a­tive per­cent­age of bat­tery use un­der Set­tings).

Mean­while, 40 per cent of Nor­we­gian stu­dents are us­ing an app called Hold, which of­fers re­wards for not check­ing your phone. The com­pany is work­ing with Coca-cola and Mi­crosoft, and is ex­pand­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally. Fi­nally, Eero, a com­pany that makes mesh Wi-fi routers, is beef­ing up an al­ready avail­able func­tion called “fam­ily pro­files” that al­lows par­ents to set re­cur­ring in­ter­net sched­ules dif­fer­ently for each kid. “It’s like pulling the breaker on the in­ter­net,” says Eero’s CEO and co-founder Nick Weaver.

Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture has an in­cred­i­ble way of back­lash­ing it­self into a (mostly) sta­ble equi­lib­rium one in which com­pa­nies sell more stuff, and so­ci­ety doesn’t fall apart. For now, it’s en­cour­ag­ing to know that the pub­lic can still gall man­u­fac­tur­ers into serv­ing our best in­ter­ests, even if we’re not quite sure what those are, be­cause, by the time we reach a fu­ture that in­cludes au­to­mated cars and aug­mented re­al­ity, we may look back fondly on the sim­pler years of the late 2010s, when all we had to con­tend with were hand com­put­ers.

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