Should We Be Putting Down Our Smartphones More?

A new study finds the real reason nobody is answering your calls is because people don't want to. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@FantasticMrNate) explains.

Most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. But add a smartphone, and beware the zombies.

Hawaii enacted a law that will fine "smartphone zombies," or pedestrians so distracted by their screens they are oblivious when crossing the street. Other states and some cities have considered a similar measures.

We also can't — or at least, shouldn't — drive and check our phones, which explains why 47 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while behind the wheel.

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Smartphones are disruptive at dinnertime. They're often the last thing we look at before we go to bed, and the first thing we see when we wake up. They are impacting how we parent: A survey conducted by Common Sense Media last year found it's not teenagers or tweens spending the most time in front of screens, but parents.

The glowing allure of the phone is undeniable. Is its hold on our lives untenable?

"There are a lot of folks worried our phones are eroding our relationships, are eroding our ability to concentrate," said Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thirve (and Survive) In Their Digital World. She doesn't necessarily share those concerns. "I think that some people do (worry) in terms of distracted parenting. I think parents have always been distracted. This is a new distraction."

When Apple introduced the iPhone 10 years ago, co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs promised a "revolutionary mobile phone." It let us perform tasks like email, web surfing or watching videos that previously required a computer. It also birthed experiences like Snapchat, Instagram, Angry Birds, and Waze, all of which supplied us with endless connections, and countless hours staring at screens.

At the same time, the smartphone has become the most important tool for documenting our lives. It's the window into our world, whether through videos of our kids' first steps, a filtered shot of our dinner, or the all-important selfie.

Add in push alerts, and the tiny computer in your pocket is literally begging for your attention.

Even a smartphone facing down on a table could impact how we connect with each other in person. A 2014 study done at Virginia Tech examined 100 two-person conversations, where in some cases a smartphone was placed face down on a table. Results showed conversations where the phone was hidden were rated higher compared to chats where the phone was visible.

"Just the presence of the phone reminds us of all the 'elsewheres' that we can be," said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

According to Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of Americans  own a smartphone. In 2016, American consumers spent an average of five hours a day on their smartphones, nearly double the amount of time from 2013 , says research firm Flurry Analytics, which specializes in analyzing mobile usage.

But with all this access to information, it's possible our phones are making us less aware of the physical world around us.

In March, the Governors Highway Safety Association projected an 11% bump in the number of pedestrians killed on roadways in 2016 compared to the previous year, the steepest year-over-year increase since they started keeping record. The report cites the "sharp rise" in smartphone use as a potential factor.

And among the starkest examples of tragic distraction, a 21-year-old Texas woman was charged in June after her 6-month-old daughter drowned in a bathtub. According to investigators, the mother was on Facebook Messenger while the baby was left unattended..

Then there's our fascination with selfies. People have lost their lives (or had a brush with death) trying to capture one, while a town in Texas paid homage to our digital self portraits with a statue.

The distraction isn't always so nefarious. Smartphones affect how we connect with others, said Turkle. "We become less aware of each other above all. Our attention is divided between the people we are with and what is on our phones."

That's especially true when it comes to parenting. A small study published this year from the University of Michigan Medical School and Illinois State University dubbed this "technoference," where the use of gadgets like phones by parents — say, checking an email or a text — can affect the interactions with their children.

The study, based on a sample of 170 U.S. couples with young children, found gadget interference was linked to issues ranging from anxiety to disruptive behavior.

"Parents should critically examine their device use and seek to minimize distractions and time spent on technology while interacting with young children," said Brandon McDaniel, a professor at Illinois State University and one of the study's authors.

Turkle says smartphones offer promises, such as our voice will be heard, that carry critical side effects. "They promise that we will never have to be bored. But the capacity for boredom, the capacity to go within and explore your imagination is one of the signal developmental capacities of childhood," said Turkle. "And they promise we will never have to be alone. But there too, the capacity for solitude is crucial. You need to know how to be alone in order to know how to be together."

So is this an epidemic requiring us to dial back on our smartphone usage? Keith Hampton, a professor at Michigan State, studied how interactions in public spaces have changed over time. In a study published in 2015, Hampton's team reviewed films from four public spaces over a 30-year period, analyzing the behaviors of more than 143,000 people.

Hampton found people often turned to their phones during "transitional spaces," such as leaving a park to go to lunch, or waiting in line.

"Clearly we all have anecdotal evidence of times when we are in social situations and people are on their mobile phones and it annoys us," he said. "When we looked for how often they occurred, it just doesn't happen that often."

As for parents worried their kids are equally obsessed, Heitner suggests the classic parenting tip: leading by example. "If you sleep with your phone, then you child is going to expect that's what normal."

Turkle also senses people will continue to adjust to life with smartphones, even though they've been attracting us since the first iPhone in 2007. "This is a technology in its infancy. We are just now figuring out how powerful it is."

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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