Stop kicking technology, it does far more good than you think

smartphone addiction

Every so often there are a spate of editorials on how much time is consumed by smartphones and other mobile devices.

Politicians are said to leave their phone at home when they go on holiday so they can think. Journalists fret about getting a message that distracts them from playing with their children.

And new problems emerge, such as around paying attention to your phone when you are presumably speaking with someone else face to face – what is called ‘phubbing’, as in snubbing someone. Camilla Cavendish concludes that we seem to be ‘badly addicted to distraction’.*

Of course, this is not new. Recall the old saying of ‘crackberry’? I have experienced many of these same problems, and I know they are real. But they need to be seen in light of a few other observations.


First, people who use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media are as much or more social than others. So in most cases, the use of these devices is supporting rather than undermining social relationships, such as keeping on touch with friends and business associates.

Secondly, portable and mobile media are extremely popular in part because they enable you to go where you need to be to have face-to-face communication.

Politicians can go on holiday more easily and often because they can be reached electronically, and keep in touch with developments at home. Parents can be at the playground because they can keep in touch by email or phone.

Digital media like the smart phone make geography more important, not less. You do not need to be at a particular place in order to get information. You can therefore be where you can have the most valuable face-to-face interaction with friends or colleagues or constituents.


Finally, and most interestingly to me, this is a problem that is socially distributed, like most other problems. Back in the days (1998!), when Americans depended on pagers, pager services provided on the Galaxy IV satellite blacked out, causing 45 million Americans to lose beeper services for about two days.

I did a survey immediately after the pagers blacked out, just as journalists were writing about how great the blackout was for everyone’s life – like a snow day, when everyone can enjoy family life and avoid work.

However, our survey results found that it was generally higher income households, such as managers and professionals, including journalists, who found this event to be positive, while more blue-collar households, for example, and the unemployed and more marginal members of society experienced more difficulties.**

Think of the repair service that depended on their beeper to get their next job, or the lone parent dependent on a beeper to keep in touch with childcare services while working.

So it is important to keep a balanced perspective on the social implications of communication technologies like the smart phone. The obvious problems, like phubbing, can distract you from the more systematic but less visible benefits, such as being where you wish to be, because you have the mobility offered by your smart phone.

Bill Dutton is Chair of Ofcom's Advisory Committee for England

*Camilla Cavendish (2013), ‘Pack a Bucket and Spade, Sweetie – Mummy Need to Bury her Smartphone’, The Sunday Times, 4 August, page 19.

**Dutton, W. H., Elberse, A., Hong, T., and Matei, S. (2001), ‘Beepless in America: The Social Impact of the Galaxy IV Pager Blackout,’ pp. 9-32 in S. Lax (ed.), Access Denied in the Information Age, London: Macmillan.


Great blog!

I think it's interesting to note that these neo-Luddite views seem to appear only in news reports. It makes me wonder just how threatened journalists actually feel. It would be interesting to hear from one who writes about the wonders and benefits of new and emerging technologies.

To be fair - not only in news reports ...

I must admit that it is not just journalists, but my spouse - for one - has accused me of phubbing, just as I accuse her of talking while I am trying to watch the news or other TV programmes. Of course, she would argue that I should value human communication over watching TV, but somehow the smart phone does not yet have the status of the TV. It is a seriously interesting area in which norms and practices around new technology are evolving slowly and it would be good to have more discussion of appropriate ettiquette, if really balanced, as you suggest. And as Ofcom research suggests, with the living room getting more complicated with the growing ecology of multiple media, the rules will be very difficult to work out.

Thanks for you comment.