The single cause of smartphone addiction

April Zhang is not surprised a society that prizes the individual over the collective is substituting human connections with online networks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 3:46am

A video clip of shoppers snapping up smartphones in a US supermarket on "Black Friday" - the start of the holiday shopping season in America - has grabbed public attention. Amid the thrill of viewing such scenes, akin to watching a bullfight, the chief cause of the madness was overlooked: the phones themselves.

Connections between smartphones and unreasonable behaviour are evident, as are their damaging effect on people's health. They can damage eyesight and hearing, have been claimed to cause brain tumours, and can lead to an addiction that alienates users from their families and friends.

When pointing out such problems, many reports also prescribe a cure. If these users can only take control of their smartphones, they can cut down time spent on them and return to meaningful relations with their loved ones. But, looking around, many people are still glued to their smartphones. So should we simply conclude, as reports imply, that people are basically in denial about the potential hazards?

Unfortunately, it's an illusion that people would change their behaviour if only they knew better. Smartphones have become a scapegoat for the problems we meet in our pursuit of individual liberty. More traditional societies, where everyone has a well-defined role in the community, are considered closed societies. Open societies, where individuals are free agents, have triumphed. We have witnessed the breakdown of family relations, a weakening of personal ties to organisations, and a loss of connections with friends.

This process of individual emancipation goes hand in hand with technological advancement. Since the Industrial Revolution, work has become monotonous, not following the seasons. Social and work divisions have made our lives more confined to fixed spheres. As a result, connections between people are getting weaker, and ties between people and machines are getting stronger. Smartphones have not taken away a good old life, as some reports suggest; they are a cover-up for a lack of a life.

The incredible mobility and flexibility provided by smartphones helps people build a magnificent life full of vivid images for themselves. Smartphones keep people entertained and engaged. Photos, videos, games and applications bring colour to otherwise grey lives. Smartphones link worldwide social networks; web browsers are able to immediately satisfy people's curiosity. Best of all, all this fits into a pocket. This exciting and multi-layered life intoxicates people, leading to smartphone-induced highs.

As the facade of this wonderful image-laden life, smartphones are necessarily disguised. They may appear clumsy and squarish, yet smartphones are nevertheless described as "sleek" and "beautiful". Different cases in a slew of colours and designs are produced to compensate for this lack of external personality.

The smartphone craze is far from over. Negative reports won't stop people from buying, and using, them. With Christmas approaching, instant happiness is just around the corner for many - a happiness that will last until the next "must have" gadget comes out.

April Zhang is an entrepreneur and a teacher of Putonghua as a second language