Are Mobile Devices Causing More Good Than Harm?

Experts weigh in on how we live our digital lives

29 July 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

If you believe a strong emotional attachment to your cellphone is cause for concern, then you might be in for a pleasant surprise. Some experts say texting, tweeting, and e-mailing are merely ways to complement the conversations you already have with others and fulfills a deep-seated desire to stay connected.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, which examines how people use the Internet and the affect it has on their lives, reports that digital communications have not replaced in-person interactions or even phone calls for that matter. “People use these technologies to sort of fill in the gaps around the communication that they do with people,” says Aaron Smith, senior researcher at the center in an interview with NPR. “Shooting them a text or an e-mail is often just easier, more convenient, and more efficient.”

Moreover, some argue cellphone usage helps people feel they are part of a group. In the It’s Complicated book, author Danah Boyd examines the online social lives of teenagers. She tells NPR that “being addicted” to information and other people’s lives is part of the human condition and adds that this phenomenon “arises from a healthy desire to be aware of surroundings and to connect to society.”

But this doesn’t help explain why when people are surrounded by their family, friends or strangers for that matter, they are still absorbed in the activities taking place on their phones. Not to mention how much is missed by not seeing facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice when conversations take place online and the miscommunications that can follow.

Despite these concerns, Pew’s research shows a majority of respondents it surveyed do not mind when people spend too much time on their cellphones. What bothers them more is when people don’t respond quickly enough to their texts and e-mails. But being too reachable also can be stressful, Smith notes. According to a 2012 Pew survey, 67 percent of cellphone owners found themselves checking their phones even when they didn’t notice them ringing or vibrating.

To break his own “addiction to being distracted” and also to spend more quality time with his fiancee, Web designer Kevin Holesh created an app that helped him track how much time he was spending on his mobile device. The app, Moment, allows users to set a maximum daily usage limit and gives a “nudge” when they’re getting close. He said instead of reading tweets, he now reads books, and is more open to the idea of being “bored.”

Do you believe the overuse of cellphones and other digital devices is a problem that needs to be addressed, or is it simply an efficient way to communicate and stay connected? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

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