Smartphones, the cigarettes of the next century?

Smartphones are addictive, according to a study from the British telecom regulator Ofcom, which, like many other studies on the topic, emphasizes that people do things like using handsets in bathrooms in lieu of talking to their children and points out how they are changing social behavior. The press release on the research, issued Thursday, uses the word addiction in a variety of forms five times, including when it says 37 percent of adults and 60 percent of teens admit they are “highly addicted” to the devices.

But why wouldn’t they be? Thanks to apps such as Twitter, texting or even email we are assured that someone is out there on the other end, listening and caring about us. And if the repercussions of such easy and electronically limited socializing mean that we have less time for reflection, or less time for dull or difficult conversations with those who are standing right in front of us (one in ten iPhone users admit to breaking off a relationship via electronic means according to TeleNav), then it’s worth asking what that means for people, society and business. I will confess to sitting in the car texting away in the front seat instead of interacting with my family, or instigating yet another round of campfire songs.

Business benefits from our addiction

My employer and I benefit at the expense of my family (although my husband may not mind losing out on my singing), which is backed up by Ofcom’s results. From the survey:

Thirty per cent of smartphone users say they regularly take part in personal phone calls during working hours, compared with 23 per cent of regular mobile phone users. However, smartphone users are more likely to take part in work calls while on holiday or annual leave. Seventy per cent say they have ever done so, with a quarter (24 per cent) admitting to doing so regularly, compared with just 16 per cent of ordinary mobile phone users.

So there is a productivity boost to be had from partaking of our new addiction, but at what cost? Here the survey disappoints. It spends a lot of time focused on the use of the technology:

The vast majority of smartphone users (81 per cent) have their mobile switched on all of the time, even when they are in bed, with four in ten adults (38 per cent) and teens (40 per cent) admitting using their smartphone after it woke them. Over half (51 per cent) of adults and two-thirds (65 per cent) of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socialising with others, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of adults and a third (34 per cent) of teenagers have used them during mealtimes and over a fifth (22 per cent) of adult and nearly half (47 per cent) of teenage smartphone users admitted using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet.

But think of the children!

However, the real result is that we don’t know how this will affect people. Can we trace massive e-coli infections to people tapping away on smartphones that have transitioned from the bathroom to the dinner table? Can we say if those teens are texting with their parents while socializing with friends? Can we show that today’s toddlers and pre-schoolers are irreparably damaged by their parents sending emails or tweets instead of talking to their little darlings? Ofcom doesn’t say, and in truth, we don’t know.

What we do know is that this shift and “addiction” is driving people to spend more money and time on these devices, which can be a doubled-edged sword for the mobile operators, but in general is good for the entire mobile ecosystem. The survey notes that “while it took 15 years for half of the UK population to get a mobile phone and 14 years to get multi-channel TV, newer technologies such as online catch up TV and social networking websites reached this landmark in just four years.” People consuming mobile and IPTV or multichannel TV services also spend 12.8 percent more in real terms from a decade ago, a figure which has actually declined since 2005.

It’s not just smartphones, it’s the web.

The addiction to smartphones is just one example of the spread of broadband into everyday life. The Ofcom survey does spend time on that shift as well, which is much deeper and more pervasive than mere smartphone addiction. Those broadband connected devices will change our society and require us to adapt in ways that may be harmful in some cases and beneficial in others.

So rather than using words like “addicted” and emphasizing how much time people spend on smartphones, perhaps it would be better to focus on how broadband, like electricity will change the way people live and the businesses they can build. Sure, electricity used to be considered harmful in some circles (I have a grandparent who considered air conditioning the decline of civilization), but it enabled a great many new industries and changed the way we live. Enabling technologies such as broadband can’t be considered through one lens. So while smartphones may be addictive, they are also the beginning of a new era that will generate new opportunities and shift the way society behaves. We are only just discovering how.

Baby image courtesy of Flickr user zackwitnij.