On a typical day, almost anywhere in the world, one could look around and spot numerous heads down, staring, swiping and tapping away at the little glowing rectangle we call the smartphone.
Smartphones are popular devices; in fact, 92 percent of adults age 18 to 29 said they own one, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research. With this surging popularity and rapidly expanding customer bases, the health issues and behavioral effects of smartphones are becoming even more pressing.
The first issue is how phones affect people’s attention span. With this small device constantly within an arms reach, there is an almost infinite amount of web pages, videos, pictures and entertainment constantly available with just the touch of a button.
All of this readily-available information and entertainment has led to the ability to be constantly stimulated and rarely bored. In an article published by Time Magazine titled “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” a study from the Canadian division of Microsoft says that since 2000, the average attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to eight.
This eight-second number was then compared to the attention span of a goldfish, which reportedly has nine seconds of focusing capability before getting distracted.
Despite the fact that the study is backed by Microsoft and publications such as the New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes Magazine as well as countless other media outlets, it is still contested by several other news outlets such as BBC News and the Wall Street Journal. The counterclaim to the study is that it does not take into account the many things that one might be focusing on or want to devote their attention to, but both sides are still up for debate.
Alongside the health effects phones have on attention spans, there is also the rising concern of smartphones’ general health effects on young children.
“Apple is the latest of the tech giants to feel pressure regarding the mounting evidence that excessive screen time is harmful to mental health — especially for kids.”
This mounting pressure on tech giants is largely propelled by a letter sent to Apple by its two biggest investors, Barry Rosenstein of JANA Partners LLC and Anne Sheehan of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The letter opens with company praise but goes on to suggest that Apple do more to combat the issue of phone overuse, especially among young children.
This type of interaction between shareholders and companies is not commonplace. According to a Digital Trends article, “Activist shareholders are not, as a rule, vocal about social change — which means that this represents something of a momentous occasion.”
Apple responded to the issue in a company statement, saying “We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them. We take this responsibility very seriously and we are committed to meeting and exceeding our customer’s expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids.”
Many researchers and psychologists say that the effects phones have on kids range from both social-emotional to physical effects, such as damage to vision. According to statistics cited by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, the general trend indicates more signs of anxiety and depression than there were 10 years ago, when the world was on the brink of the smart device era.
“Across the board, there’s a really consistent trend with mental health issues increasing among teens.”
Jean Twenge, in an interview with Digital Trends
The overall debate and research on what health risks phones pose stems from the fact that smartphones, and more specifically iPhones, have only existed for around 11 years. The lack in quantity of research has been set by the parameters of the time researchers have had to study them, so only more research is to come as more time is spent with phones in hand.