Are Smartphones Ruining Our Social Lives?


Are Smartphones Really Smart?

Perhaps smartphones should be renamed dumbphones due to the dumbing-down of social interaction between humans today. Like any device, a cellphone is a tool like a TV or a PC –they have their places in our lives– but the ubiquitous mobile phone has become so much more than a device. It’s become an extension of our very beings and for most of us, indispensable, but for many, an addiction.

Clearly I’m a tech fan or I wouldn’t be writing for DCT and my journey from a briefcase-sized mobile phone to a Galaxy Note 8 during the last twenty-odd years is a slice of tech history, as can be seen in Jim Hillier’s excellent 2015 article SmartPhones: What the DCT Team Uses and Why.

However, I’m an inveterate tinkerer and admirer of shiny things which I’ve been known to covet, Gollum-like, until I finally reach that Nirvana-like state of unboxing. So for me, the acquisition of the shiny thing is the pinnacle and I use my phone as the tool for as it was designed to be used– principally a messaging device, a superb camera, and a GPS. As far as I’m concerned those are the three most useful tools and let’s face it, there are probably many more functions on a smartphone that we never use.

Can’t You See That I’m Busy?

Since Jim’s article, smartphones have become much smarter — or dumber, depending on your point of view — and permeate our lives in ways that I couldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago. This is particularly noticeable with the so-called millennials whose default body pose, almost from dawn to dusk can be the same or similar to the image above. Or, if the user is highly dexterous, the phone is held in one hand whilst the other is adjusting the volume on their ear-buds. On numerous occasions I’ve attempted to start an actual verbal, human conversation with a millennial who is gripped in this trance-like, zombie state, only to be rebuffed with them asking why I can’t see that they’re busy. This kind of interaction causes some friction because, since we’re using labels here, millennials regard me as a boomer — one who was born in the 50s — and therefore could never understand their universe and interrupting them when they’re busy scrolling through Instagram is a perverse invasion of privacy, at least according to the body language emitted anyway.


And I always thought millennials were multi-taskers, something I have witnessed on many occasions.

I’m not a breakfast person as a rule, but I have observed youngsters at breakfast; staring at their phones, each watching different videos or scrolling through different social media, yet simultaneously managing to hold a fragmented conversation. Surely that in itself is multi-tasking? I’m not usually a rubbernecker either, but on overhearing what is being said, I scratch my head because it seems to come from a different dimension– like a broken up radio signal from a galaxy many light-years away.

But this is not a dig at millennials per se– they just happen to have embraced the smartphone as their indispensable companion and portal to the world. In our household, I’ve asked that phones not be brought to the dinner table because they’re an invasion and distract from any meaningful conversation. In fact, it was getting to the point where every topic reminded someone of something else, such as a meme, a gif or a daft cat video, so it had to be illustrated visually on someone’s phone and thrust into your face whether or not you wanted to see the meme that you’d seen a thousand times already.

Okay, I get it, smartphones can do almost anything today and they are the perfect portable medium that you can whip out of your pocket like drawing a gun. But they shouldn’t replace social interaction, surely?


Can I Call You Back?

Long, long ago in a land of fairies and elves, my dad would refer to the telephone — the one with the circular dial — as the instrument of the Devil and I would chortle at his pre-war attitude. However, back here in the twenties, I can now see what he meant, but on a much larger scale. For example, how many times have you been deep in conversation with someone, their phone chirps or vibrates, they whip it out, turn away and start yakking with the caller as if you didn’t even exist? When I get a call in those circumstances, I either ignore it because I know that it’s hardly ever a matter of life and death, or I have the phone set to silent and check it later. In fact, I have mine set to silent most of the time and it vibrates if there’s a message or a call. I mean, I’m not exactly the president’s chief of staff, so having it trilling away every few minutes is an unnecessary distraction, not just for me but for the people around me.

Do You Think Smartphones Are Anti-Social?

In a similar vein to the gun debate, surely it’s the people that use smartphones that should take more responsibility? In fact, I know dozens of people who don’t own a mobile phone, swearing that they never will and that their lives are richer and less stressful after the fact. But I believe it goes further than that; having a smartphone in your face for eighteen hours a day smacks of addiction to me and like all vices, would surely require some kind of remedial treatment. But are you going to be the first to tell someone they have a problem?

You know that annoying habit your friend has of casually checking her texts while you’re talking? Well, it’s so common, there’s now an actual name for it: phubbing, as in phone-snubbing. You’d never do that, right?!

But hey, it’s not all bad and I’m certainly no paragon of virtue. I’ve probably installed more Apps than I need, I probably only ever use half of them or less, but the ones I do use have become indispensable because apart from my customers knocking on the front door in the traditional way, it’s a little more convenient for them to send me a WhatsApp message. Likewise, I can send someone my exact location which, amongst the thousands of other uses our phones have, just makes life a little simpler. And simpler is what we all want, but not to the point of smartphones ruling our lives.


About the Author

Marc Thomas

Marc is an avid traveler, motorcyclist, entrepreneur, and gamer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. His interest in computers and technology began in the early 1990's when he was introduced by a friend to a Zenith Data Systems computer running DOS. In the years following he has experienced all versions of the Windows operating system, built hundreds of systems, and fixed many more for his customers. Marc also has an interesting forum you might like to check out at Argentina Expats

12 Comments

  1. I’m very bad for this but I was thinking about something the other day. I was born in the summer of 89, so I do remember a time when mobile phones weren’t really a thing, and mobile phones when I was growing up where mainly for calls and texts, and sometimes music and pictures. The smartphones of today weren’t really a thing back then.

    I had a computer that I used too much growing up, using things like MSN Messenger. The thing is, that computer was the only way I had to access the internet. When I left the house that was it. Now that computer basically fits in your pocket so the internet follows you everywhere.

    I remember going away for 2 weeks abroad and coming back and having to go through 2 weeks of email, most of it from things I’d signed up for but rarely read. Now even when you go away, most places have free WI-FI.

    Maybe that is the problem – the tech that we could use at certain times follows us everywhere now and because it’s there and we have become used to it, even addicted, we cannot stop using it, to the point we will check emails even when on holiday.

    It doesn’t help that now you can get a variety of games on phones so if your bored, can’t sleep etc. there’s a lot you can do. Now my routine before bed, seems to consist of me checking emails, but also playing some games.

    • Peter,

      I was born quite a bit earlier than you, and there was no internet, computer, nor cellphone when I was growing up. The younger folks would wonder how we even lived back then, but life was fun. The modern stuff is effectively marketed as a “must have”, so the seeds of addiction are sown very early.

  2. Being a slave to the cell phone doesn’t have to happen. All you have to do is have some willpower. Turning your cell off at certain times of the day or evening is a good start. Realizing that you do not have to respond immediately to messages is also a good idea. There is more to life than a cell phone attached to you.

    • Gail,

      I agree with you, but unfortunately, society demands it of us. I have business contacts who will send me a WhatsApp message if I take too long to answer an email. And of course there are friends and family who will actually make a good old fashioned phone call if I take too long to answer a WhatsApp message.

      Also noticing in a social group I’m affiliated with, certain matters of interest are often not mentioned publicly when we meet anymore, as the assumption is that everyone saw WhatsApp statuses pertaining to the same. Sometimes I don’t know, because I’m not addicted to reading status updates.

  3. Smart ‘phones are not the problem, people who use them to excess are the problem and many users are selfish, ignorant, arrogant, by allowing the device to almost completely rule their lives.
    It was announced with plenty of notice that from February 1, 2020, the fine for using a mobile ‘phone when driving or stopped in traffic or at traffic lights in Queensland, Australia the fine would be AUD$1,000.00 and the addition of 4 demerit points.
    Licence suspension is 4 points for a learner and provisional licence, 12 points for an open licence.
    Since Feb 1 more than 300 people have been fined $1,000.00, mostly young drivers.
    People have created anti-socialism using the fictional ‘freedom’ by using mobile ‘phones.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Here in Manitoba, Canada, we have similar laws when it comes to driving and using your phone. What we need are some social rules when engaging with people one-on-one. Hate competing with a cell phone!

  5. As previously stated, smart phones are not the problem, it is the people who have become addicted – and it seems this is growing problem, like those who are vaping. I used to believe individuals could exercise self control, till it became clear many were electronic junkies.

    The worst usage of the smart phone is texting or talking while driving or walking. The imposed fines are too small and/or almost impossible to administer due to limited resources.

    Odd that a wonderful and useful tool in the wrong hands can do so much harm, Mindblower!

  6. People are less organised now we have mobile phones and don’t stick to appointments. We managed ok in the past (and I didn’t even have a landline at home till my early twenties).
    I want to be in control of my life and not be controlled by others – which unfortunately is what most people in the first world are doing. Rather sad to allow your life to be run by big business and end up as a gadget-consuming clone!

    • Hi Andrew,
      A great life full of excitement, enjoyment, a secure, full-time job, the mysteries of the future, the connection of a land-line telephone, the whistle of the postman, sports only on Saturday afternoon, the skill needed to drive a manual vehicle and get a licence, drive-in movies with mates or a girl friend, individual shops with owners running them.
      Ice creams and milk shakes in a specialist shop with tables and chairs, pick up yourself and take away fish and chips, hamburgers, now only memories.
      Much more which has disappeared due to corporate, commercial greed and the overwhelming, un-needed, mind-bending technology upgraded every few weeks & months.
      The decimation of self-controlled human beings is steadily happening and technology controlled, sum-human zombies is instilled in them on a daily basis.
      Driverless cars for example, who is controlling the controller of the GPS when planning a route with voice activation.

      Don’t worry, be happy. 😉

      • JonInOz,

        The change is evident. My two grown-up daughters don’t have land lines in their homes. Who needs those when you have a mini phone always in your pocket or attached to your fingers!! The telephone companies now offer homes data-only packages so you can get internet for your computer and wi-fi for your cellphone, without installing the good old fashioned phone on the wall.

        We still have a landline at home but it hardly ever rings. Most of our calls come direct to each of our own individual personal cellphones whether we’re home or out. Gone are the days when I would answer the phone and someone would ask to speak to my wife or one of my children. (And of course it’s way more often we get WhatsApp messages than actual calls now anyway).

  7. No phone may be a smart phone! Born in the 50’s I’ve always been a bit suspicious of tech and to this day, find it unnecessarily intrusive but admit, a level of addiction active in my life. I’ve got the Star Trek (original) flip style phone. It’s mostly off or silent or out of sight. I use it when I need it, not so much when it needs me!

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