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Don't play victim to your smartphone

You probably don't need to check your e-mail every five minutes while refreshing your Twitter feed and sending a text.
You probably don't need to check your e-mail every five minutes while refreshing your Twitter feed and sending a text.
  • New gadgets are powerful stimulants when they break into the mainstream
  • Smartphones can be addictive because they tap into our compulsive desire to be social
  • Put your phone on airplane mode while with friends to prevent rudeness

Editor's note: A former staff writer for WIRED, Brian X. Chen is a freelance technology journalist in San Francisco. He recently published "Always On," a book about how the smartphone revolution has transformed society, business and culture.

(CNN) -- If you're sick of your friend flicking around with his iPhone at dinner, tell him to shut the damn thing off and return to reality.

It's really that simple. I guarantee that most people with even the slightest amount of courtesy will sheepishly stick their smartphone into their pocket and rejoin the conversation.

Constantly checking a phone while you're with a friend is rude -- but who can blame someone for loving his smartphone?

New gadgets are powerful stimulants when they break into the mainstream. They can be exhilarating and even life-changing, which makes them addictive and almost irresistible.

And similar to a new relationship with a romantic partner, we go through a honeymoon phase with the companion we carry everywhere in our pocket. We feel like we must check our e-mail every five minutes in between refreshing our Twitter feed and shooting out a quick text message. We just can't be separated from our beloved handset, much less the dreamy man or woman we hooked up with after a few tequila shots last week.

But as with relationships, we don't have to be so clingy, and we do have the option to set boundaries.

When I'm with a group of friends at a bar, for example, I make it a habit to switch my iPhone to "airplane mode" to disable it from receiving phone calls, text messages or e-mails. This is one of many small steps I take to control the technology in my life so I can consume it in moderation and live healthily.

It's kind of like a smoker who regulates the number of cigarettes he puffs each day. If a smoker can limit his intake of a very addictive drug, why can't we control our compulsive need to whip out our smartphones?

For some strange reason, with technology we love to play the victim -- and that's nothing new.

Fear of technology

Fear of new technology seems engrained in human nature, because it goes way back. In 1876, The New York Times made a bold prediction: The advent of the telephone would cause people to stop going to church.

"Thus the telephone, by bringing music and minister into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches," the newspaper claimed.

Fast forward to today, and lo and behold: In the United States, practically every citizen owns a phone, and yet 40% of Americans still attend church, and there are 335,000 religious congregations throughout the country. Clearly, we weren't victims to the telephone, even though some feared we would be when the technology was first introduced.

Going back even further in time, Socrates was once quoted saying that the pen would deprive us of the ability to memorize: "for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."

Mind you, scientific research today finds that the act of writing is a form of repetition that helps you ingrain a memory into your head. Even if you don't read your notes afterward, you're more likely to remember something after writing it down.

Again, a fear of becoming a victim to technology that didn't pan out. If Socrates were alive today, he'd probably wish that quote were never jotted down.

Today, technology cynics point their fingers at Internet-connected smartphones and make all sorts of accusations: We're becoming dumber than ever before, we're losing our ability to concentrate and we're not being social because we bury our faces in our iDevices or Droids.

Our desire to be social

As a San Francisco-based author who just wrote a book about the always-connected mobile revolution, I hear these complaints all the time from readers, friends and colleagues.

Fair enough. I'm sure the smartphone may have negative impacts on plenty of people. And there is indeed reason for concern. In a study by the University of Kansas, researchers polled hundreds of students on whether they text while driving. Interestingly, 83% of the group believed that texting while driving was unsafe, but 98% admitted to doing it anyway.

So people know texting while driving is harmful and yet they keep doing it, and they tell themselves they need to do it.

The implications? The smartphone can be an addictive experience because it taps into our compulsive desire to be social, says Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, who led the study.

"We're social organisms. There's so many mechanisms built into the brain that are designed for socialization," he said. "The telecommunications industry has hit on something we're built to do."

Yes, once we plug in, it's difficult to disconnect. But what I still fail to understand is why we must continue to play the victim. If we recognize a problem with smartphones, why not make an effort to prune out what's bad about them?

A solution

I used to be that guy at the restaurant who obsessively checked his iPhone every five minutes. But long ago I snapped out of the honeymoon phase and decided I'd stop being a jerk to my friends. I do still have an urge to check my smartphone often, hence my airplane mode solution. With a tiny bit of willpower, I flip the switch, and I'm off.

In the evenings, I also don't bring my iPhone to the gym, just so I can get away from a screen for a while and enjoy some respite. I also make a choice to not respond to e-mails after a specific hour -- and if that irritates people, too bad.

And I don't text or talk on the phone while I drive, because I know it's stupid.

When I am actively using my iPhone, I enjoy all its perks, such as getting the location of a restaurant in a few seconds, hailing an Uber car to get me to my next meeting on time or scanning a barcode of an item at a store so I can compare prices online.

I enjoy the benefits of technology, and yet I can enjoy a good meal, exercise plenty and have a good time with my friends. Can't we all do this and stop playing the iVictim?

A friend of mine just started a new job, and on day one she told her team, "I'm not going to be online at all after work hours, period. I'll be off the grid when I'm off the clock."

Time will tell if this will be good or bad for her career, but I admire the effort. It's just another example of how we can hack our lives to control the technology we use, and not allow it to control us.


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