I lost my cell phone last week, and immediately went into a pronounced tailspin. In a hurry to make an appointment, I must have left the phone—an iPhone 5 Black 32GB—on the top of the car as I pulled out of the driveway. Within minutes, I realized that the phone wasn’t where I usually put it. I doubled back in the vain hope that the phone would turn up. It did not. The sense of loss was particularly acute because I had not downloaded the crucial app for such circumstances—“Find iPhone”—reachable through iCloud.com. What a great and comforting asset this app could have been—with a tap or two, I would have been able to locate the device (everyone else in my office with an iPhone seemed to have it). The lack of this single application added to my sense of ignominy, and was a lesson in keeping up with the pace of new features. Fortunately, I did have insurance, and for $199 the replacement arrived overnight. With the assistance of colleagues and efficiency at My Verizon, I was able to recover all my contacts, e-mail and calendars. Even my suspended phone number was restored.
This frenetic episode lasted barely more than a day before my new phone arrived, and was actually improved by my commitment to the iCloud backup. But the experience of losing a handy device that until then I pretty much took for granted felt like a big deal. My intense reaction provided a valuable personal insight into how attached I had become to the phone, even if I am not one of the tens of millions who text, check Twitter, or take pictures all day long—among the many activities on my iPhone 5 I very rarely use. The variety of smartphones—Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, RIM’s Blackberry OS, Samsung, Microsoft’s Window Phone, among others—and the apps available for them offer what seem almost limitless uses, to the point that the role of mobile devices is a national pastime, with the prospect that virtually the entire population will eventually have them in some form. A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that 46 percent of American adults own a smartphone, which was up by 25 percent from 2011. At that rate, the figure must be well over half of Americans now carrying a phone that has as many features as desktop computers and tablets, plus their core function as a telephone. The indicators are also that the age of first-time smartphone users is dropping as low as middle school. A WebMD feature written by Susan Davis quoted Peter DeLisi, academic dean of the information technology leadership program at Santa Clara University in California poses the essential issue: “The amount of time that people are spending with the new technology, the apparent preoccupation, raises the question, ‘why’?”
The best answer I found was in Nicholas Carr’s book: The Shallows: What the Internet Is doing to Our Brains: “The smartphone, through its small size, ease of use, proliferation of free or cheap apps and constant connectivity changes our relationship with computers in a way that goes well beyond what we experienced with laptops . . . the devices provide an almost continuous stream of messages and alerts as well as easy access to a myriad of compelling information sources.” Carr, who does not carry a smartphone, concluded: “I’m sure one of main reasons people tend to be so compulsive in their use of smartphones is that they can’t stand the idea that there may be a new bit of information out there they haven’t seen. I know that I’m not strong enough to resist that temptation. So I’ve decided to shun the device altogether.”
It has probably been true for several years, but I am increasingly aware that in the elevator of my midtown New York office building, on the crowded surrounding streets of Broadway and Eighth Avenue and in the subway and bus, the smartphone is pervasive, particularly among younger adults, whose heads-down focus on the screen, the scrolling motion for the latest message, and their dexterity with keyboards is a dominant image. There is a reflex to check the phone constantly, especially when you are moving from one place to another (hence the streets, the elevator and in transport). A 2011 study, cited on WebMD from the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, described the ways checking becomes habitual to the point where it can be characterized as addictive. “The average user checks his or her smartphone 35 times a day,” the study found, “for about 30 seconds each time,” usually for e-mails, social media connections, and news updates.
As a pre-baby-boomer, I am certainly not of the generations that have grown up in the digital age and yet the extent of my vulnerable response to losing the phone surprised me. A recent Huffington Post piece by Carolyn Gregoire cited a 2011 study which found that “when young people unplugged from technology for just 24 hours, the vast majority reported experiencing physical and mental symptoms of distress.” The consensus of experts is the more attached we become to our smartphones, the more we are displaying what amount to addictive reactions. I am very glad that I have a well-equipped smartphone again, and I am determined to be more careful about where and how I carry it with me. But a phone, ultimately, should be regarded as a useful connector to people we want to reach and information that we rely on to manage our lives. If you do lose your smartphone, stay calm. There is always another phone—for a fee, of course—to take its place.
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