Are Smartphones The Cigarettes of Our Generation?

What if the very tools that have the greatest potential to change the world are also crippling us from doing so?

The Problem of Smartphone Usage

Here are some stats to illustrate my thinking:

  • The average smartphone user checks their phone 221 times per day, starting by checking their email and Facebook at 7.31am[1].
  • US consumers now spend over five hours per day on their phone. That amounts to 76 full days in a single year[2].

While the exact figures vary depending on the source, smartphone usage statistics have continued to increase year-on-year. This trend represents one of the most subversive and widespread problems of our generation. Technology is disrupting every major industry, every household and every human mind.

This is what leads me to suggest that smartphones are the cigarettes of our generation. By that I mean: it's the newest coolest thing that everyone on the block is doing and that it's only a matter of time until society recognizes the effects of this widespread addiction and starts to develop systematic ways to solve this problem.

In the meantime, we have an incredible opportunity. If you want to create lasting positive change in a broken world, the time is now. The tools and methodology are here at our fingertips. Together we can form diverse teams to solve genuine human problems like social isolation, chronic illness, food distribution, soil degradation, sex trafficking, and everything else you can think of.

Lets move beyond the novelty of Silicon Valley's like buttons and vanishing chat messages. There's so much more that we can do if we set our minds to it...

The Solution Starts With You: A Systems Thinking View

I'm reading a book by Dave Gray called Liminal Thinking — Create The Change You Want By Changing The Way You Think. It's an incredible two-part book that begins with "How Beliefs Shape Everything" and ends with "What to Do About It". I highly recommend it.

Part II "What to Do About It" begins with an amazing clause:

If you are part of the system you want to change, you're part of the problem.

The ensuing chapter goes on to describe Erica Kochi (leader of Unicef's innovation team) and her journey to collect stories from the people of Uganda. Erica teamed up with Google and a non-profit called One Laptop per Child based on the assumption that laptops would be a perfect tool to empower people to share their stories. Guess what happened?

The people said "I don't want to tell my story. Why should I tell my story to a bunch of foreigners?"... "What I want is someone to come out and fix these potholes. I want clean water. Street lights."

... once Unicef had gotten past their assumptions and started to listen, they were able to understand a different problem... they built their program on technology people already knew and used, such as mobile phones and text messages.

They simply text JOIN to an SMS short code and once a week they get a question by text message, which can be anything from "Do you have access to fresh water?" to "Are there medicines and drugs at the nearby clinic?"

The outcome was the establishment of real-time stream of Ugandan human needs that could be published in newspapers, on TV and would begin transforming policy discussion and bills in Parliament. Imagine that.

Erica's Epiphany

Erica learned that she needed to begin by listening to the Ugandan people and their needs. Once she understood the people and their context, she could then identify ways to meet their needs while also fulfilling her organizational objectives.

This human-centered approach is a mantra that designers repeat at every opportunity, but the reality is that as individuals we are handicapped by our inability to pay attention, be still and listen. Whether you want to establish product market fit for a client, or build genuine relationships with your family, it's important to identify that the noise of the digital world is an addictive obstacle standing in the way.

What to do about it?

If you feel compelled to respond to the role that smartphone usage may have in your life, consider these three challenges:

Three Challenges

  1. Download Moment and begin tracking your smartphone usage. Set a goal for spending less than an hour per day on your phone. Commit to it for 14-days. Do the 14-day bootcamp. It will transform the way you spend your time.
  2. Take 20 minutes out of your day. Put your phone in a drawer. Go outside. Pay attention. Observe the world around you. What are people saying? What are they doing? What is their body language? Can you hear the birds? The crickets?
  3. The next time you encounter someone in need (whether it be a homeless person, or someone who tripped on the pavement and fell), stop what you're doing and listen to them. Be there for them. Be human. See if you can meet their need. Risk being late to your next meeting. See what happens inside you...

As an ongoing effort to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life I've challenged myself to use my phone less, among other things. As a result, I find it easier focus, make valuable observations and be more sensitive to the needs of people around me.

How do you feel about your own smartphone usage? Your family's? Have you done anything to try and reduce it? What has worked?

  1. Average smartphone user checks device 221 times a day, according to research by Alexandra Rucki
  2. U.S. Consumers Time-Spent on Mobile Crosses 5 Hours a Day by Simon Khalaf and Lali Kesiraju
Photo Credits

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash
Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash