Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
Americans are estimated to check their smartphones a collective 8 billion times per day, and Nielsen says we spend an average of one hour and 39 minutes on our smartphones each day — up 60 percent from last year. But while many of us consider our smartphones to be an essential part of our lives, there are many misconceptions about how we use them and how they affect us.
The World Health Organization (WHO) set off a small flurry of panic in 2011 when it classified the radiation from cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic.” And worrywarts for years have been concerned about the “radiation” from handheld devices. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site, Goop, asks, “Are Cell Phones and WiFi Signals Toxic?” The city of Berkeley, Calif., passed a “Right to Know” measure in 2015 that requires all cellphone stores to warn buyers that the devices emit radiation. “Even if the science isn’t firm, if there’s a risk, we should proceed with caution,” Berkeley City Council member Max Anderson told the New York Times at the time.
But scientists have never established a direct link between cellphones and cancer, as even the WHO admitted. The group’s fact sheet, issued at the same time as its classification, says, “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” Researchers have yet to definitively rule out suggestions that phones can increase cases of two types of brain cancer, a malignant form called glioma and a benign form called acoustic neuroma, but a definitive causal link has never been found. And the National Cancer Institute says there has been no significant increase in brain cancers in the past decade as cellphone use has increased.
The perception that smartphones are beyond the reach of the poor surfaces in political debates about government-subsidized phones. Critics of the Lifeline program — incorrectly nicknamed the “Obama phone” program — that provides subsidies for cellphone service have been particularly shocked that it can be used to reimburse smartphone use. “The federal government should only be providing services for emergencies. You and I, taxpayers, shouldn’t be paying for cellphones so someone can have a social life,” then-Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) told the Daily Caller in 2012. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate.” More recently, critics of aid to Syrian refugees have pointed to photos of them holding their smartphones, asking how dire their situation could be if they still had a means to snap selfies.
But the dropping price of smartphones has put these devices in reach of many more people. Companies such as Motorola and Chinese manufacturers Huawei and OnePlus have focused on selling affordable phones, particularly in the international market. The Pew Research Center reported that, as of last year, 54 percent of people across 21 emerging and developing countries “reported using the internet at least occasionally or owning a smartphone.” In Malaysia, for instance, where the median monthly income is about $1,130 , Pew found that 65 percent of people had a smartphone.
Smartphones have become a daily necessity, not just a perk for the middle class. For many low-income families, as the Commerce Department found, the devices provide the only reliable access to the Internet — which they need to apply for jobs or do homework, among other things. This spring, the department reported that “29 percent of online households with family incomes below $25,000 only used mobile Internet service at home, compared with 15 percent of those households with incomes of $100,000 or more.”
What’s more, in crisis situations, smartphones have become the most reliable way to get information, apply for aid and find a place to live. Time magazine, which called smartphones a “lifeline” for refugees, asked a man from Syria which was more important, food or power? He answered without hesitation: “Charging my phone.”
How does your smartphone make you feel? “Productive” was the most common answer (followed by “happy”) among respondents asked to link their phones to an emotion in Pew’s 2015 study on smartphone use. Productivity is a big selling point for smartphone makers. Samsung’s ad campaign for its latest smartphone trumpets the virtue of being “busy, busy, busy ” and explains how the device can help buyers stay that way.
But tapping away at your smartphone all day doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting things done. A study released in August, commissioned by the security firm Kaspersky Lab, found quite the opposite. Researchers from the Universities of Würzburg and Nottingham-Trent asked 95 participants to perform tasks with their phones placed in their pockets, on their desks, in a locked drawer or outside the room. As the phones got farther away, productivity levels went steadily up. Overall, those whose smartphones were outside the room performed 26 percent better on the tests than other participants did.
It seems intuitive, especially considering the glazed, vacant-eyed stares on most people’s faces when they use their phones. And think of all those selfie-related fatalities. Researchers at Microsoft grabbed headlines when they found that the average human attention span had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015 — less than that of a goldfish — and that digital media use helped contribute to that decline. The coverage practically writes itself: “Are smartphones making us dumber?” asked one from the Huffington Post. “Butterfly brain: why smartphones are making us stupid,” read another from the Telegraph.
But there’s nothing inherent in smartphones that turns us into dunces. When it comes to actual intelligence, some studies suggest that they in fact make us smarter. Researchers studying the “Flynn effect” — a trend that suggests IQ overall has been improving over the years — in people older than 50 say mobile phones and computers seem to contribute “considerably ” to people’s ability to stay in intellectually demanding jobs for longer periods of time. “On average, test scores of people aged 50+ today correspond to test scores from people 4-8 years younger and tested 6 years earlier,” researcher Valeria Bordone told Science Daily.
There are certainly cases in which digital media can prompt isolating behaviors; more and more researchers treat excessive smartphone and Internet use as an addiction. But that doesn’t necessarily make users antisocial. In fact, smartphones enable us to speak more with close friends and relatives than ever before, as well as to meet new people and organize social events. A 2015 Pew study showed that coordinating plans and talking to family and friends were the second and third most common uses for smartphones, behind finding information.
For many pundits, it’s a foregone conclusion: Online sales will supplant brick-and-mortar shops. “Retail guys are going to go out of business, and ecommerce will become the place everyone buys,” tech investor Marc Andreessen said in 2013. “You are not going to have a choice.” When Amazon announced that it was making a smartphone with special shopping features in 2014, Salon said it was chief executive Jeff Bezos’s path to “kill off brick-and-mortar retail, once and for all.” (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
There is no denying that smartphones have altered the way we shop and that online shopping provides competition for the traditional storefront. But about 90 percent of purchases are still made in stores. Often, stores and smartphones have developed a symbiotic relationship, as retailers experiment with ways to incorporate mobile shopping into in-person shopping. One example is the rise of in-store pickup programs, which give customers the convenience of mobile shopping and the immediacy of real-world shopping — all without the shipping times. Meanwhile, Amazon’s smartphone, which was designed so that shoppers could bypass stores altogether, was discontinued after about a year.
Mobile shopping is on the rise — up 30 percent between the holiday seasons of 2014 and 2015, according to IBM — but brick-and-mortar stores are also popular with young people. An August report from eMarketer found that teens prefer shopping in a real store for just about everything apart from games. Perhaps shopping in a store will become the next hipster trend.