Smartphones and mobile technology are powerful tools we can use to improve our lives, but all too often we are slaves to the machine, writes Johan Nylander
Some time ago, I made an experiment. After finishing work on Friday, I switched of the data roaming on my mobile phone – silencing all social media, emails and instant messaging – and didn’t turn it on again until Monday morning. Admittedly, it might not sound as daring as going totally off-grid at a silent spiritual retreat in the Hindu Kush for a year. But the outcome of the weekend experiment was striking.
First, I hadn’t felt more relaxed in ages. Just revoking this constant distraction of social media notifications, emails and news alerts made me feel like I was on holiday. I felt more present in conversations, more social and fulfilled, with more energy. What was striking was that the positive effect kicked in almost immediately; just knowing the phone was off put a warm blanket of calm over my shoulders. I didn’t, however, switch off entirely as family and friends could still reach me with a phone call. Still, silence lingered.
Second, it wasn’t easy. Several times I had to the fight the temptation to have just one tiny little glance at my Linkedin or Facebook, a cheeky check of WeChat or WhatsApp, or a sneaky peek to check for any breaking news, urgent emails, game updates or… well, just anything. My fingers were itching. Perhaps not as bad as for someone trying to quit smoking but I felt a strong urge to turn the data on. I had to mentally fight it. They call it nomophobia – or no mobile phone phobia.
Mobile phones, digital devices and the internet have brought amazing benefits. They have become central to our lives; for work, studies, social connections and entertainment. They are fun and efficient. But expects also warn about over-dependence, and an unhealthy attachment.
Today, mobile phone addiction seems to be spreading like wildfire across the world, and according to some research the problem is the worst in Asia. Although there’s still a lack of adequate academic studies and scientific data, most researchers agree that a new powerful obsession has entered our society.
No matter where you go, people have their heads buried in a virtual world.
Dr Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at the Dimensions Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district, explains that our digital devices, as well as the content they display, are designed to be addictive. When we’re unable to check our devices for whatever reason, anxiety sets in.
“I have more and more people coming to our clinic because they feel anxious if they don’t stay connected all the time,” she says.
Before setting up the practice in Hong Kong, she worked in Hawaii with people suffering from severe psychiatric problems, including a jail diversion program to help criminals with mental illness and drug addictions.
“Back in Hong Kong in private practice I also see many people with severe addictions issues with substances like alcohol, sex or gambling. But also adults and children with internet addictions. Some kids won’t even get out of their house.”
Sometimes, she explains, she feels like a personal trainer for the brain. She assesses a patient's strength and weaknesses, and helps them to train their mental muscle to resist the temptation. The fundamental idea of the iPhone, she says, is that the device becomes a part of us, attached to us. So how do we create a healthy detachment? She gives an example:
“Tell yourself that during dinner tonight I shall not look at my phone. If you realize that you can’t, that you have to check your phone although you shouldn’t, you really have a problem. If you try to use the mental muscle but the muscle doesn’t work, you might need psychological help.”
Indeed, in Hong Kong it’s a common sight to see couples on a romantic dinner ignoring each other and instead texting with other people on their smartphones. You can see groups of friends in a bar with every single one of them absorbed in their screens. We’ve all seen children burst out crying when their parents take the digital device away from them – and how often does the parent lose the fight and hand the phone or tablet back to the bawling brat? This is harmful in many ways, according to several experts interviewed for this article.
A lost generation...
The numbers affected by mobile overdosing are striking. In South Korea, for example, 72 percent of children own a smartphone by the age of 11 or 12 and spend on average 5.4 hours a day on them, according to a 2016 study of almost 1,000 students. As a result, the study concluded, about 25 percent of children were considered addicted to smartphones.
Hong Kong’s Department of Health has found that infants younger than one year are frequently given electronic devices as “e-pacifiers,” or a “shut-up tool.” Some 32 percent of the youngsters polled by the department believed they slept less because of the internet, 39 percent said the habit had affected their academic performance and 51 percent said there were more family quarrels as a result. Yet, the survey also found only very few parents said they supervised their children when using electronic devices.
Ninety-eight percent of parents in Southeast Asia allow children to use devices, according to a study commissioned by Samsung Kidstime. The primary motivation of parents for allowing their children to use devices is to supplement their education, but the same study shows that most kids use them for something else – gaming. At the same time, 92 percent of polled parents were worried about the impact of device use on their children’s health, and the addiction to devices. Children’s health was the biggest concern in Thailand (99 percent), inappropriate content in Indonesia (95 percent) and addiction to devices in Singapore (94 percent).
In China, the first country to recognize internet addiction disorder as a mental illness, there are military-style clinics to stamp out new media addictions. According to a 2016 survey from Tencent, among citizens aged 28-37, 94 percent are not used to going out without their mobile phones, 84 percent will feel anxious if their phones fail to connect to the internet, and 73 percent check a social app at least once every 15 minutes. In fact, special pedestrian lanes have been created for “the heads-down tribe” – a nickname for pedestrians who constantly have their eyes glued to their mobile phone as they walk and text or watch videos.
“Data shows that for the young people in China, smartphone addiction has become a chronic and widely extending disease,” research company Daxue Consulting said in a blog post. Chinese are finding it increasingly difficult to live without their smartphones.”
Mobile phone stress has given rise to an array of “digital detox” self-help books, courses and even apps to limit and monitor your own use. Also, a growing number of hotels have seen the need for their guests to get a break from the digital inflow.
At the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, guests can slip into the “Digital Wellness Escape,” a detox treatment curated to help guide the mind, body and spirit away from online distractions and light pollution.
“People are increasingly recognizing how much harm is coming from digital devices and the constant use of them. I mean, phones are amazing. There are so many benefits. But we’ve come to a point where people are too attached to them,” says spa director Misty Stewart “So in a spa setting, we try to counterbalance that.”
The treatment is more than just a 90-minute escape. It’s a way to create long-term awareness, like a wakeup call. The treatment starts with a quiz with questions including: Do you allow digital devices during family dinners? Do you reply to emails and texts while walking on the street? Are you unable to put your phone aside while you focus on other things?
“The answers of the questions tell how connected you are, or rather how hard it is for you to disconnect. We want to give people that awareness where they think ‘wow, let’s look at this’. Mobile phones really affect you and your family, as well as your eating habits, sleep and routines. It’s a huge problem,” she says.
Dr Seamus MacAuley, head counselor at rehab clinic The Cabin Hong Kong in Central, warns that withdrawing from the real world and hiding in the virtual can lead to “intimacy anorexia,” a relationship disorder where people withhold love and affection from others.
“There’s a huge amount of gaming, surfing and texting out there. In itself it’s not harmful; not until you feel negative consequences and can’t control it anymore,” he says. “Some even sleep with their phone under the pillow.”
He explains that there are two signs an individual has reached his or her addiction threshold. First, when it becomes impossible to control the amount of time they are spending on their devices, and second, when their behavior starts to have a negative impact on their life. In other words, heavy usage of technology does not necessarily make a person an addict: that only happens when their use becomes exaggerated.
But how much is exaggerated use? Often it’s people around the individual, like family members or work colleagues, who first see the signs and negative consequences, MacAuley explains. He cites the example of a client who came for help after his wife alerted him that he was overdosing on social media.
“His wife was fed up with him never being [mentally] present. He would wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning and spend the next few hours on Twitter. He would be late for work and not be able to manage his wake-sleep cycle,” he says.
But, at the end of the day there’s only one person who can make a change – yourself. It’s all about your own motivation, or your mental muscle.
“You can chain an alcoholic to a radiator, but it won’t make him not want to have a drink. It’s all about losing the desire. The problem is not stopping, it’s staying stopped.”
The same goes for mobile phones.
Our attachment to gadgets may be part of a deeply imbedded evolutionary adaptation central to our use of tools.
Behavioral scientists studying the cognitive abilities of animals such as beavers, crows, bower birds and chimpanzees raise the possibility that when using tools – in the broadest sense, the interaction between our fingers and other moving parts and inanimate things – our brains have evolved to include them as part of our body map.
Once an animal takes hold of an object such as a stick, stone or iPhone 8+, it becomes, for “conceptual purposes a temporary part of the animal itself,” Princeton biologist James L. Gould and his science writer wife Carol Grant Gould wrote in Animal Architects, Building and the Evolution of Intelligence, “only to become a separate entity again once released.”
As human intelligence developed, so too has our ability to conceptualize, plan and imagine though externalization and abstraction. In our heads, perhaps, our smartphones have become part of us.
“As birds use their claws and beaks, and beavers employ strong teeth and hand-like paws, we manipulate the objects around us, using them as either components or tools (or more often both),” the Goulds wrote. “Once a familiar component is in our hand, it can become part of us conceptually, an object for which the behavioral possibilities can be estimated on the basis of past experience and then extrapolated.”
Take the Mandarin’s Digital Wellness Health Quiz
- Do you allow digital devices during family dinner?
- Do you text or use internet while eating alone?
- Do your friends of family express frustration with your technology consumption?
- Do you watch TV or use the internet right before going to bed?
- Do you sleep with notifications and ringer in the “on” position?
- Does your work expect you to be available more than 10 hours a day on the phone?
- Do you reply to texts or emails during meetings?
- Do you reply to emails and texts while walking on the street?
- Do you look at your phone screen during workouts?
- Are you unable to put your phone aside while you focus on other things?
If you answer YES on more than half of these questions, you might suffer from smartphone overdosing. (The full quiz contains twice as many questions)