The tyranny of the smartphone

Feb 16, 2020 | 20 comments

Whatsup with all the media addicts?

I walked from San Sebastian to San Blas the other day and couldn’t help but notice the large number of folks yakking into, staring at or scrolling through their cell phones. What was striking is this that almost every bench in Plaza San Blas had at least two people glued to a little screen that was absorbing all of their attention.

Although my attention that day was on younger Ecuadorians, I am painfully aware that old expats, including many of my dear friends, are also absorbed by the small screen and I don’t deny my own occasional dalliance with the “glass teat” (to borrow a term from 1960s media critic Harlan Ellison).

A dozen years of research clearly illustrates the harmful effects of obsessive cell phone use, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO), to classify the condition as a behavioral addiction. Some research actually shows significant loss of brain function by heavy users and is part of what Andrew Keen calls the “dumbing down of civilization.”

Unlike substance addiction where there are clear changes in daily lifestyle and interferences, the insidious quality of behavioral addiction is more elusive. Obsessing over the relentless barrage of social media encourages reliance on unfounded flattery,  and a media-driven definition of perfection that is artificial, superficial, and damaging. People are spending so much time on their phones, laptops and tablets that they become distracted from building a real connection with the world around them, not to mention the people who inhabit it.

Social media has become the dominant platform where extremist views are sanctioned and tribalism is encouraged, while regard for truth and integrity are buried under a blizzard of sniveling and strident voices more concerned with notoriety than a responsibility to uphold the basic tenets of civil society.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that 36% of U.S. college students surveyed believe that they cannot live without their cell phones. An unexpected result from the study was that 7% of the students stated that they had lost a job or a relationship over their cell phone use.

Perhaps more alarming is the 67% of smartphone users who said they check their phones for calls, instant messages, or updates even when their phones did not ring or beep — a clear sign that something is not right with our behavioral attachment to cell phones. One study found that high school students check their phones, on average, 500 times a day.

I suggest we conduct ourselves in a way that expresses our attachment to the beauty that engulfs Cuenca. The enticing ripe fruit so carefully arranged in baskets and barrows by hard-working women offers us a clear glimpse that perfection is already at hand, and that nourishment is provided through growth, hard work, and a respect for the land. A little meditation on these qualities will sustain us infinitely longer than the battery life of a phone.

Smartphones certainly make life easier in some respect, but please do not lose sight of the fact that there is a life without them.

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