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T+E NYC Preview: Are Smartphones the New Cigarettes?

(Photo: bowie15/iStock/Getty Images)

My mother, who turns 95 this year, would light up in between the main course and dessert.  Sometimes my dad would join her at the other end of the table. Us eight kids just had to suck it up.  

That was the sixties. The social norms surrounding cigarettes allowed for smoking on trains, planes and automobiles. There was an ashtray next to Gideon’s Bible in every hotel room.  Smoke got in your eyes.

Now, it’s a blue haze.  

Screens, of course, are everywhere. We take them to bed with us.  The bathroom, too. We take selfies at funerals and include the deceased. And, in between courses, we pull out our phones at dinner. “Just checking”, we tell our kids, who pull out theirs too.  

It is commonplace to say we’re addicted to our phones. We seek the chemical hit just like addicts throughout the ages. Behind the screens, we are told, there are 1,000 programmers doing their best to capture our attention and engage us with compelling, hard-to-resist content and experiences. Our Pavlovian responses to an alert, buzz or vibration have us held hostage to our devices while we gush data about our deepest desires, our whereabouts and our shopping preferences.

And yet…

There are experts who warn against using the word “addiction” too liberally.  Dr. Michael Rich of Boston Children’s Hospital, for instance, argues that he and other researchers are not “seeing physiologic changes either when using or withdrawing, as you do with alcohol or heroin, but we’re calling it problematic interactive media use for the reasons that they do get functionally impaired”.

He acknowledges that kids lose sleep and make tech a priority over other activities and can become withdrawn themselves from families and friends to stay online. While this looks like addiction, it’s neither accurate to describe it thus nor is it an acceptable medical condition.  And, internet addiction, in spite of all the headlines, has not made it into the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

So, while they may not qualify as addictive in the medical sense, our devices and our smartphones in particular, have overwhelmed us (and our kids) over the past decade. We need to develop new behavioral norms and self-discipline to curb our problematic digital habits. And we’ll need the active participation of those who create these wondrous technologies and the best efforts of a new generation of programmers to help redress the balance.

Equating Facebook with Big Tobacco and Apple with Big Pharma may make for great headlines and Senate hearing zingers, but let’s not overstate the issue. While smoking kills, social media use does not. Our apps and devices have negative and addictive qualities, but they can also be used to connect, raise up and enlighten. Still, we must keep the pressure on the industry to create more tools, in-line messaging and nudges to take a break and go offline. And yes, we all have to take responsibility for our digital habits – creating tech-free zones and tech-free time zones in our homes, schools and public places.

Let’s make passive cell phone use at dinner as unacceptable as passive smoking. One day we may see folks relegated to texting outside a bar, a restaurant, or an office building, right next to the smokers.

Stephen Balkam runs the Family Online Safety Institute. He will be moderating a panel discussion about smartphone “addiction” on the second day of Techonomy NYC, May 9. See the full agenda here.



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