A landmark study has found that users of smartphones have become “human snails carrying our homes in our pockets” with a tendency to focus on their device instead of friends and family.
The UCL team of anthropologists documented smartphone usage over the course of a year in nine countries across the world, finding that people felt the same way about their device as they did about their homes.
“The smartphone is no longer just a device that we use, it’s become the place where we live,” said the leader of the study, Prof Daniel Miller. “The flip side of that for human relationships is that at any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we’re with can just disappear, having ‘gone home’ to their smartphone.”
Miller said that the “death of proximity” with regards to face-to-face interaction was being caused by the phenomenon.
“This behaviour, and the frustration, disappointment or even offence it can cause, is what we’re calling the ‘death of proximity’. We are learning to live with the jeopardy that even when we are physically together, we can be socially, emotionally or professionally alone.”
The researchers suggest that chat apps, dubbed the “heart of the smartphone” are to blame for the transformation. “For many users across most regions, a single app now represents the most important thing that the smartphone does for them” – LINE in Japan, for instance, WeChat in China, and WhatsApp in Brazil.
“These apps are the platforms where siblings come together to take care of elderly parents, proud parents send out endless photographs of their babies, and migrants reconnect with families; they are the means by which you can still be a grandparent even if living in another country.”
In contrast to many other studies into smartphone usage, the UCL researchers focused on adults who “consider themselves neither young nor elderly”.
“At first an emphasis upon older people may appear strange because we have become so used to concentrating upon youth, once thought the natural users of smartphones,” said the researchers, “however, a focus upon older people has helped to extract the study of smartphones from any specific demographic niche so that they may be considered as the possession of humanity as a whole.”
However, Miller argued that the team’s findings aren’t necessarily a negative thing. “The smartphone is helping us create and recreate a vast range of helpful behaviours, from re-establishing extended families to creating new spaces for healthcare and political debate.
“It is only by looking at the vastly different uses and contexts that we can fully understand the consequences of smartphones for people’s lives around the world.”
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