• Smartphone Overuse and the (Potential) Demise of Civility

    by Dr Jack Lewis

    At least once a month I find myself reading a neuroscience research paper, followed by a passage from a book I currently have on the go (or vice versa) and a novel insight linking the two will blow me away. It happens so often that I’ve toyed with the idea of launching a spin-off blog called Serendipity in Science. This ridiculous notion is soon extinguished by the realisation that, as I only just manage to churn out one brain blog per month for this website, let alone the blogs I should be doing for the sortyourbrainout.com and sciofsin.com blogs, it makes more sense just to keep focusing on getting it all down here. So here goes…

    This month I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through every research paper I can get my hands on that has investigated what over-immersion in technology might be doing to human brains. Concurrently, I’ve been reading a little bit of Prof Steven Pinker’s awesome Better Angels of Our Nature each morning. The former is very much in its infancy and so this ever-expanding body of literature remains a bit patchy. The latter enjoys a much sturdier footing and makes a compelling argument to support the idea that, despite the pervading sense of doom that convinces many people that humanity is going to the dogs, as far as the hard facts are concerned, we’ve never had it so good. Essentially, the odds of a person dying in a violent confrontation were extremely high during pre-history (based on the archaeological record) and has been steady in decline since historical records began, until now each of us are statistically extremely unlikely to meet a violent end. While the various bloody conflicts that raged throughout much of the early 20th century might have seemed unprecedented – something of a crescendo of human suffering – when deaths from bloody conflicts are measured as a proportion of the total population, several wars from earlier centuries of the past two millennia were just as deadly.

    In my experience this is one of the best places to stumble on new combinations of ideas

    The seemingly miraculous process of pacification that resulted in the Long Peace of the present era was driven by several factors. One was that we started cooperating in larger and larger groups that offered greater stability by ensuring that each nation’s best interests overlapped with those of their neighbours. As humans moved away from the historically common arrangement of living within one of a large number of small groups (each with several rival neighbouring groups with whom competition over resources often led to conflict, and still does in some parts of the world to this day), to a smaller number of much larger groups, we gradually became less and less likely to die at the hands, blades or bullets of a bellicose foe. So the lion’s share of the pacification process was the development of stable states that did not just make laws but was also able to enforce them fairly and consistently. Another surprisingly influential part of the overall process has been attributed, believe it or not, to the emergence of etiquette.

    The explanation for this counter-intuitive insight goes as follows. Once success depended not on who was the most murderous and belligerent warlord, but on who could curry favour with whoever was the most powerful person in the land – whether king, emperor or otherwise – there was suddenly a pressure to rein in the primal impulses that previously governed human behaviour, rather than allowing them to reign supreme. Essentially, for the first time in the history of our species, to get the best for you and yours, rather than being a fearsome warrior capable of conquering all foes, you instead had to be able to mingle with courtiers. As courtiers had a distinct tendency to go to great lengths to distance themselves from the unwashed masses, their habits became more and more refined. And anyone who wanted to get on with those who held the power had to follow suit, or risk being ejected from the corridors of power.

    Developing commonly accepted standards of etiquette helped us rein in our baser impulses

    The received wisdom that began circulating from the Middle
    Ages onwards regarding best practices in comportment essentially boiled down to
    developing superior capacities for various aspects of self-control. Pinker
    distils this down to the following five:

    “Control your
    appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act
    like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature”

    This was passage that knocked me for six, because that same
    week I had been poring over a review of all scientific research to date
    investigating the potential negative impacts of smartphone overuse on cognition.
    While the never-ending flow of scaremongering headlines and (mostly speculative)
    popular science books about the perils posed by overuse of smartphones, the
    internet and screens in general might have led people to suspect the worse, the
    hard evidence is actually rather thin on the ground. That said, two findings
    are supported by a growing body of data:

    Firstly, overuse of smartphones leads to a steeper delay discounting curve – in other words, intensive use of smartphones is associated with greater impatience when it comes to choosing between smaller rewards after a short delay and greater rewards after a longer delay.

    Perspective taking is a vital part of civilised culture; it is eroded during media multitasking

    Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, using smartphones while doing other tasks like watching TV, surfing the internet etc (media multitasking) is strongly associated with a diminished capacity for perspective taking. In other words when a person is juggling their attention between their smartphone and other forms of technology, they become less capable of putting themselves in other people’s shoes.

    I’ve often found myself annoyed by the sight of couples out on a date, both head down, endlessly scrolling through the posts on one form of social media or another. Large families around the table in restaurant can often be found squinting into their smartphones while younger kids are mesmerised by cartoons on a tablet. While I can fully understand the practical advantages of the latter scenario, I often wonder whether it might end in tears for kids in the long run. After all, to develop effective powers of self-control this vital skill need to be exercised regularly and kids simply aren’t getting the practice they used to.

    I’ve often thought that the reason so many people tolerate starkly anti-social behaviour from other adults is that new technologies appear on the scene so soon after the previous ones. There simply seems to be no time for society to adjust to each successive disruption of the social norms. And until there is convincing scientific evidence for people to point to indicating a negative outcome from such behaviours, there’s little chance of convincing them to take measures to use their smartphones less. Even now that early evidence is emerging, bad habits remain notoriously difficult to change.

    In essence, the evidence suggests that overuse of smartphones makes people less able to wait for a better reward later on and temporarily incapable of taking other people’s perspectives. As improving skills of empathy and delayed gratification have been deemed (by Pinker and the researchers upon which he bases his arguments) to be an instrumental part of the process of making people more civilised (and therefore less likely inflict harm on those around them), it seems distinctly possible that those who overuse their smartphones could end up behaving in an increasingly anti-social manner, compared to those who use them in moderation. Could people who overuse their smartphones really be more prone to uncivilised behaviour?

    Happily this is a testable hypothesis, so hopefully someone out there is looking into this right now. Sadly, if it does prove to be true and smartphone overuse becomes the norm for most people over the next few years, we might also predict that the Long Peace we’ve been enjoying throughout the developed world over the past couple of generations might not last much longer. Let’s hope that our love affair with technology can be tempered sufficiently for this hypothetical unravelling of civilisation to be averted.

    Avoiding this unpleasant scenario should be a piece of cake, if only people would take some simple steps to reduce their smartphone use. If more people could keep their phone on silent most of the time, delete social media apps so that they can only be accessed from static computers and avoid getting hooked on pointless, yet fun and addictive smartphone games like Candy Crush, they’d find the numbers of hours they spent on their smartphones would rapidly diminish. It’s certainly not rocket science. But easier said than done. Once people find themselves hooked on technological pleasures, they often find themselves reluctant to cut down.

    I myself must admit to having finally deleted Facebook from my phone only last month. I now check it once a week on my computer, which is more than enough to keep up. Of the huge benefits I’ve experienced, one game changer has been avoiding wasting many hours lost by unlocking my smartphone to look at a text message or missed call, only to find myself checking Facebook, and various other apps 10, 20 and sometimes 30 minutes later. I call this Off-Target Faff (OTF). Switching off all notifications is a great way to reduce OTF. An even better strategy is to delete all non-essential apps completely.

    Personally, I’m all up for embracing new technologies. I’m just strongly averse to surrendering control to them. And I could never be accused of being a modern day Luddite. In fact, I’ve been spending the past months experimenting with Virtual Reality and over the past few weeks have even been starting to build my own games. As with everything, I think the rule of thumb that helps people yield all the benefits of technology while avoiding the potential drawbacks is a simple case of: everything in moderation.

    In my soon-to-be-launched YouTube channel VIRTUAL VIVE SANITY I make a big fuss about setting a timer to moderate how much time you spend in the various weird and wonderful worlds available through VR. I’m genuinely concerned that the sheer variety of immersive experiences offered by this particular “new” media format are so enticing that people will lose track of time and perhaps even start to forego real life events in order to spend more time in VR.

    That said, if people do manage to resist the impulse to overdo it, I feel utterly convinced that while 2D computer gaming made people fat, 3D virtual reality gaming has the potential to make people fit (in both body and brain). So hopefully we can learn from the drawbacks associated with other new media formats of the past few decades and collectively agree upon a new tech-iquette – to help humanity embrace technological progression, without ending up in societal regression.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet regularly (@drjacklewis) and am getting very close to launching my new YouTube channel (Virtual Vive Sanity).

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