Luckily enough, I’m a useless idiot;

This has given me the opportunity for insight into my own actions and on occasion that of others. This insight has been afforded to me by on more than one occasion, by losing my phone (38 occasions but who’s counting) Actually my insurance company is, and now I have to undergo a procedure tantamount to the spanish inquisition to get a new handset. The most recent of my loses (at the time of writing this, I’m sure there has been at least three since) I was in Cambodia thus rendering me phone-less for an extended period of time.

Before I left for my travels I had actually already removed certain apps from my phone, namely Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as I was already well aware of my over indulgence in these apps and I wanted to protect myself from spending my whole time travelling caught up in the web. We have all heard the preachers telling us to “look up” from our phones etc. So like the well-meaning smoker trying to quit, I ripped my apps in half, through them in the bin and squirted ketchup all over them.

There were two particular occasions during my travels that lead me to research and write this article. The first was a day I was lucky enough to visit Angkor Watt. Angkor Watt is incredible, it is one of the wonders of the world. An astounding piece of ancient architecture that’s scale is only trumped by it’s beauty. As a lone traveller I wondered the temple in quiet introspection. As I did, I marvelled not only at the views but the conduct of my fellow tourists. The reality is that before I even write what the conduct is, many of you will already know what I am going to say. Which only highlights my observation. As I travelled through the forest of selfie sticks and nestled myself quietly beside one of the premium view points of the temple. I sat and quietly observed.

I should probably state at this point, before I go any further, that photography is something I love. I know all too well how precious a photograph can be, encapsulating a memory, capturing a moment. I love revisiting photos I have taken and perusing photos taken by others. Allowing me to feel a part of their experiences.

However as I watched various people approach the view it became clear, the photo was the primary objective. The view was merely an opportunity. No longer something to be enjoyed by the eye, but by the camera, and by extension the friends of photographer. Without exaggeration 80% of people who approached the view, and this view was breathtaking. The kind of view that makes you feel grateful you have survived long enough to see it. Did not pause for a moment to take in the scene. Instantly snapping away and turning their back on the view for a selfie. Before reviewing the pictures and moving on.

The majority of the people who approached the view, did not see it with their naked eye. I was amazed as I watched. Eventually a lady came up, snapped a few pictures and I stood and said to her, “what do you think of the view?”

To which she showed me a picture she just took on her phone and replied, “great isn’t it”

I would also like to point out this epidemic has surpassed generation, race and creed. Everyone was at it. Should the picture not be to capture the moment that makes memory? Not become the memory itself? Unless you are working for the National geographic when the picture is the purpose. When people return to show the pictures and proclaim, “I was here”  Were they really? Was I not such a self-righteous , cod philosophical twerp, would I have been doing the exact same? More than likely!

The next time my attention was drawn to the role of the handset was in the Hard Rock Cafe.If you should happen to be in Siam Reap, Cambodia, and I highly recommend you should happen to be. Go to the Hard Rock cafe around 8pm and they have a live band. This band will blow you away. Remarkable cover band. They will do almost any request to an extraordinary standard. So I am sat in the Hard Rock Cafe, enjoying this feast of food and live music. There is a table of roughly eleven in front of me and a table of three to my right.

The table in front of me, did not put their phones down, even to eat. They had their phones in their hands the whole time. Only looking up to take a selfie or film the band. They shared may be 5 interactions between each other the whole evening. Usually to get each other to pose for a photo. They had lost all connection with each other. They lived out the whole evening on and through their devices. Even plugging into their portable charges to ensure they didn’t risk a moment away from its grip.

The table to my right was made up of three friends, one of them was sitting and enjoying the music. The others had their heads in their phones the whole evening. I could see one of their screens and she was just flicking through Facebook continuously. Again only looking up to take a photo. At one stage one of the three friends got up to perform a song. He performed it very well. I watched as one of his friends remained on Facebook. She did not look up the whole performance apart from to clap at the end and at the start. Her activity was so benign, browsing disinterestedly through statuses and snaps. I thought to myself. If she had come across a video of her friend singing this song with this great band, in this cool bar, she would have clicked and watched. But the live event was of little to no interest to her.

These are merely observations rather than judgements. I look back on many times I have been guilty of texting my way through meals or Facebooking while with friends.

Sometimes I think;

When someone is sat with a friend, and they are texting someone else. If they were sat with the person they were texting, they wouldn’t be talking to them, and instead texting the person they are now sat not talking to.

Having viewed this behaviour as well as my own and that of basically everyone around me. the question has to be asked;

Are our phones making us unwell? 

When you take a back seat and observe this behaviour, its ludicrous. It’s madness. We are choosing interaction with our screens over our fellow humans at an alarming rate and it only appears to be getting worse. There are a few aspects of the smart phone age we have entered that it’s worth having a closer look at. Starting with the Selfie;

The rise of the selfie

The selfie is indicative of the new age phone obsession. Many writers, cynics and social commentators have come down pretty hard on the selfie. Calling it gross narcissism, self obsession, vanity. You name it the selfie has been condemned by it. I in fact take a slightly different view on the phenomena. I think self obsession and vanity may be a by-product, but not the driver, I certainly don’t presume that everyone that takes and shares selfies are narcissists or self obsessed people. The selfie originally played the role of taking a photo of yourself, somewhere you would like to show you were, when you had no one to take the photo for you. I imagine this is how it started. It was then manipulated by popular culture, like most of the things that enter our consciousness, like fashion, trends, consumer goods, via our popular icons and role models. With the rise of twitter we got to see our favourite stars posting selfies. This naturally escalated the rise of it’s popularity exponentially. I believe this actually appealed not to the narcissist in us but to the core of our yearning for human connection.

Selfie

Paris Hilton, “influential selfie enthusiast”

The selfie gave us an opportunity to remind people we exist. In a world of ever-increasing disconnection and isolation. It also allowed us to do this in a preferable manner. We can capture ourselves at what we deem to be our most favourable. With more and more filters and apps to enhance our appearance we can snap ourselves at our coiffed and airbrushed best. I am often guilty of thinking “today I look good, compared to normal, better take a selfie.” Sometimes to send out, post or even sometimes purely for my own records. That is not normal behaviour, it is far from it, or at least is should be. Even if I am vainer then most. This epidemic is on the rise. Increasing insecurities with it. Could it be that a selfie is not shared through self-love but rather through insecurity? A constant hunt and search for validation on a superficial level? The level we are constantly reminded by media we need to be judged and validated on.

We are now even supposed to select our partners purely based on their selfies. The advent of Tinder now means we can select our love interests purely on this level and nothing else. What does that say of our society? We wonder why we are becoming ever more concerned with our appearance and how we are judged. Well now its got to the stage where passing on our DNA, the most forceful and base drive within every human can literally depend on how good your selfies are. It’s also among my views that these selfies are creating unrealistic expectations of beauty creating a generation of girls and boys with low self-esteem because they feel inadequate, anxious when they leave the house because they feel they don’t live up to their refined photos. As more and more social emphasis and adoration comes from these superficial displays. It in turn increases it’s virulence.

What effect on our moods, confidence and anxiety are our phones having?

I would like to draw your attention next to the study of Internet pornography or probably in many of the cases of people reading this, momentarily away from studying Internet Pornography! One of the reasons Internet Pornography is so successful and also causes more undiagnosed addiction then most modern-day afflictions, is because it quickly, easily and without apparent complication stimulates one of the most primordial aspects of the brain. Simulating sex visually releases similar chemical reactions on the brain to the act itself. But it does so without some of the important brain activity that comes with the real physical act. There is a lack of oxytocin. So this simulation and incomplete brain activity leads to some very real issues in the brain, attention defects, raised anxiety, temper and lower confidence just to name a few without mentioning the heavy correlation to erectile dysfunction and lowered relationship capabilities shown in the study.

According to a study by Zimbardo and published in a book called “The demise of guys.” When Internet Pornography is watched it creates surges of dopamine, these excessive and chronic hits of dopamine (the feel good chemical in the brain) it creates the release of something called Delta-FosB which is a molecular switch (basically something that can create physical changes in the brain), Excess of this starts to alter the brain and create a binge and craving cycle i.e addictions. One of the first changes that occurs is a numbed pleasure response. So more is required to create the same effect. This also reduces will power as the frontal cortex (an area at the front of the brain) changes. The reason for this is from an evolutionary point of view to “binge” is an evolutionary advantage. This is why we have a propensity to be addicted to high calorie foods and sex as when we evolved our systems. You needed to eat as much as you could when it was there and try not to miss an opportunity to copulate!

Is a similar arousal addiction happening with our phones? There is a drive within us that is just as strong as the drive for sex, if not stronger. The drive for human connection, the drive for communal acceptance and I guess ultimately love. But not the love of a partner but a more unifying love.

Controversial piece "phonekkake" by Artist Luis Quiles

Controversial piece “phonekkake” by Artist Luis Quiles

Our phones are acting as an apparent quick fix of connection. Simulating the real deal. Much in the same way pornography does. We can quickly share messages with all our friends, feel part of their lives by scrolling through photos. Send selfies so they can think about us. Exchange message and gossip (gossiping is the corner-stone of modern society and one of the most important features of community). Our phones allow us to do this at a rate never before seen. It also allows us to do this without the angst of normal human interaction. We have time to carefully compose our messages, edit our photo’s. We have a safety net with the phone. It appears to reduce our chance at anxiety and social faux pas and it’s always there at a moments notice. However this is really simulation of human connection that is leading us to actually feel more isolated, more anxious and like any drug the less it delivers each time, the more we must take. So the more isolated and disconnected we feel, the more we search for connection through our devices and the vicious cycle is well underway. When we glide through Facebook, we aren’t really connecting with anybody. We are missing out on those vital brain chemicals that true interaction brings. That has formed our brains and societies over two million years. Our brains have been around for millennia, iPhones for just a matter of years. To say we are ill-equipped for this kind of platform is a gross understatement.

"Likeoholic" By artists Asaf Hanuka

“Likeoholic” By artists Asaf Hanuka

Arousal addiction has been proven to create depression and anxiety. So if our phones are causing arousal addiction, could they be effecting our mental health on mass never before seen?

It is undeniable that mental health issues are on the rise. According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010, one in 10 American adults reported some form of depression. Eleven percent of the US population over the age of 12 was on antidepressant medication.

The guardian recently reported that over 50 million antidepressant prescriptions are written a year in the UK. Worrying statistics I’m sure you would agree.

I am sure this is due to myriad facts to do with western culture, consumerism, wealth gaps, pace of life and the speed of which we are diagnosed pharmaceuticals but what role our are phones playing?

Were we less anxious and stressed when we had no mobiles? Or even when our mobiles mainly meant you could play snake on the bus and save up for one night of about 8 carefully scripted texts.

The problem is, Smart phones are making an absolute killing for industry. The more in-grossed and reliant we are on our phones, the more we will spend to keep up with the trends, the more we can be exposed to messages and advertisements. It may sound Orwellian or like the ravings of a conspiracy nut. But If we could get to the stage where we barely leave the house, barely moved from our sofas and stared at our phones for every waking hour making online purchases we would be the ideal nation for any capitalist ideologists.

Are we becoming enslaved by our smart phones? Or is this merely the next step in our evolution? Are we destined to become fully cut off from one and other? Only interacting via devices, mediated by our personal in-device assistants? Leaving us out of touch with one and other. Breaking down the already vastly declining human commune. Leaving us Immobile, anti-social, anxious, depressed, consumerist hermits?

This may sound like a crazy and unreasonable prediction. But if I had taken a 30-year-old you from 1995, just 20 years ago, and dumped you in the Hard Rock Cafe or Angkor Watt to witness the relentless, expressionless gorping at these hand-held screens. What would you have thought? What would you have rushed back to 1995 to forewarn?

I write this from the perspective of a 27-year-old that has known some life before our electronic entanglement. What of the children of the smart phone generation?

We will have no control group to study it’s effects. I have travelled to some of the poorest parts of Asia and the smart phone has reached almost everywhere. There are people living in handmade huts that still are in possession of Samsung Galaxies. Monks in far-flung temples taking selfies. We adopt technologies so readily and freely without pausing for consideration. I think that technology and smart phones have wonderful potential for improving our lives, our health and our global connectivity. To entertain, spread news and provide useful tools. But only if we can moderate our usage and our track record of moderation is pretty catastrophic.

Is it too late? Can we return to a balance? Are we physiologically prepared or capable to resist the glowing light?

Even the action itself of holding the phone becomes an addiction in the same way holding a cigarette does. If even I, that is now fastidiously self-aware of my phone transgressions, can not free myself from it’s instant allure. Are we lost to cyber solitude forever more? I didn’t write this article because I hate smart phones or Facebook, quite the opposite, But I also love basically every behaviour that is addictive and bad for my health.

Should we just keep an eye on our own usage?

How much of it is actually productive, or even fun?

How much further can the envelopment go?