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Smartphone addiction is no indication of humanity's downhill spiral but self-control is key

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-08-12 18:19
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Social media dominates our adult lives, taking up every crevice of spare time with the never ending scrolling of our phones. Not since the introduction of cigarettes into mainstream society in the 20th century have we found a habit we are so happy to do after waking up, after meals, and after sex. Most days I can easily catch myself mindlessly "zombie scrolling" through an infinite, never-ending feed of videos and pictures on my phone.

The problem is not just limited to working adults either as never before has such a pastime dominated across all the demographics of society. Even children, as young as 3, now own iPhones.

According to MarketWatch, young adults in the United States can spend up to an eye watering 11 hours a day interacting with media on their phones. The same is true the world over, as social media apps such as Instagram go beyond just simply "catching up with friends", and allow you to scroll down an infinite feed of content.

Similar stats are available in Asia for apps such as TikTok, where the term "zombie" scrolling is used to describe mindlessly coursing through shallow content.

A new bill in the US called SMART aims to change this, by targeting social media giants and incentivizing them to alter their design so that content is limited. Instagram since last year, has been rolling out a backstop feature to also prevent zombie scrolling. After a significant amount of browsing has taken place, users are shown a mid-feed alert saying "You're all caught up -  You've seen all new posts from the past 48 hours".

There are similar concerns in China, with adverts on the metro encouraging people to take a break from their phones existing since 2014. One print campaign, that encouraged Chinese commuters to "put down their phones, raise their heads to look around and not let their phones kidnap their real lives" by a Xi'an-based agency, won an award at the 2016 China Public Service Advertisement Grand Prix.

As useful as our phones may be, these initiatives could not come soon enough. Large tech corporations, especially ones in China, have seemed to take note and responsibility for the issue.

According to a survey run by Tencent, among those aged 28-37, only 6 percent of those questioned would consider leaving the house without their phones. And 84 percent said that they would feel anxious if their phones failed to connect to the internet and perhaps most worryingly, 73 percent stated that they check a social media app at least once every 15 minutes.

This survey was taken back in 2016, and one can only imagine that with the mainstream adoption of 4G since then that these statistics will become bleaker if precautions are not taken.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Recent research indicates that millennials all over the world are starting to spend more time and disposable income on activities that veer away from technology. Whether it is spending more on eating out with friends in restaurants in Asia, or novel activities such as climbing, trampoline parks or"axe throwing"in the West, it seems that humans have a natural tendency to know when enough is enough.

A smartphone addiction is far from an indication of the downhill spiral of humanity, but it is something that nevertheless both policymakers and phone owners should be aware of. With the advent of 5G on the horizon set to revolutionize online content, apps will no doubt continue to engage our primate brains with even more dazzling and bewitching technological feats, and give us the artificial dopamine buzz evolution has made us crave. Just as tobacco before it, addictions come and go, but across the eras it is evident that one thing is constant –self-control is key.

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