Theda Radtke, many of us are extremely attached to our smartphone. In the morning, 35 percent of us first think about their phone, compared to 17 percent who think about coffee first and 10 percent whose first thought goes to their significant other. Why are these devices so valuable to so many of us?
Theda Radtke: Our entire lives are stored in our phones. At the same time, we have probably forgotten how to be without a smartphone.
What is your relationship with your mobile phone?
Radtke: I’ve also noticed that I use it out of sheer habit, even in situations in which it’d be better not to, for example when I’m around children. But I often also deliberately refrain from using it, for example by leaving it in a different room or turning on silent mode. I also don’t automatically have my work e-mails forwarded to my smartphone, but have to log in to check them. And I can’t always be reached on the phone.
So you’ve built in obstacles to not be completely dominated by the device?
Discussions about mobile phone usage generally focus on the negative aspects, which we’ll also come to shortly. But what are some of the positives of mobile phones?
Radtke: Research has shown that we communicate more again within our families and that we can more easily get in touch with people whom we don’t see that often. Another great benefit is that information is available around the clock, which is a valuable resource, especially in countries where well-equipped libraries are few and far between. Easier access to information also clears the way for democratic processes.
And what are the negative aspects?
Radtke: There are many correlative findings here. In other words, two observations can be linked to one another, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that this link is actually caused by smartphone use. For example, a study in Germany revealed that children who use smartphones from an early age are more likely to suffer from impaired speech development and poor concentration. The question is whether this is caused by using a smartphone or by other factors. Another example: If you use your smartphone intensively for work, you’re more stressed in the evening and more likely to feel obligated to answer work e-mails in the evening, too. These people are thus less able to relax and might also sleep poorly. Moreover, smartphone light can result in lower levels of melatonin, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
Like watching TV in the evening?
There are people who fall asleep in front of the TV.
Radtke: But people who use their smartphones are generally more active than those sitting in front of the TV. A Swiss study for example showed that adolescents who use their smartphones in the evening are less rested and more likely to be depressed. And yet, as already mentioned, it’s not entirely clear whether there’s a causal link to mobile phone use here. It could also be that people who distance themselves less from work anyway simply use their mobile phones more often. The same applies to adolescents who are more susceptible to depression, which is why these links have to be interpreted with great caution.
Depression, poor sleep – does excessive mobile phone use have negative long-term effects on our health?
Radtke: I’m not aware of any studies yet that have looked into these phenomena over a longer period of time. But there are experimental studies on cognitive functions, for example people’s ability to memorize, which does indeed seem to suffer. It could however also have to do with the fact that we no longer memorize things like phone numbers, because we can simply look them up.
You mentioned that smartphones can improve our social contacts. However, there’s also a potential for causing trouble, especially in relationships. What insights can science offer us here?
Radtke: There are a few studies that have looked into this in couple relationships, and they came to the conclusion that excessive mobile phone use can be a stressor that can lead to decreased satisfaction in the relationship. For instance, women get annoyed when their partner reaches for their phone in the middle of a conversation. But again: Maybe they were unhappy before and the mobile phone is simply another aspect of their miscommunication.
Is there such a thing as social etiquette when it comes to using a smartphone? How should you respond to someone who’s constantly fidgeting away on their phone, for example when sitting at a table with others?
Radtke: There’s actually a Knigge guide on mobile phones – i.e. rules on good and polite behavior when it comes to using a mobile phone. According to these, you should mute your phone when you’re in a meeting, not speak too loudly on the phone, and pay attention to your speaking partner rather than your smartphone.
What’s your policy here?
Radtke: I leave my phone in my bag when I’m with friends or in a meeting.
What can science tell us about using a smartphone?
Radtke: We should use the mobile phone either in a conscious way or not at all, for example in social interactions or in the company of children. We should ask ourselves: Do we want our children to use a smartphone from an early age? Or do we prefer that they not do so? In any case, we should set rules for ourselves and the whole family. For example, that the family table is a phone-free area, where we interact with other family members. Or that we won’t check our work e-mails after 8 o’clock in the evening.
Sometimes mobile phone use gets out of hand – when is someone considered addicted to their mobile phone?
Radtke: There’s no universally binding definition yet. People can use their phones intensively without being addicted. In terms of addiction, it’s very similar to tobacco or alcohol – for example when you can’t be without your smartphone anymore, if it restricts your daily routine and makes you neglect certain things, or if you use it for gratification, or when you can’t experience joy without it. These are criteria for determining whether or not you’re addicted to your mobile phone. They apply to relatively few people. We’ve estimated that around one percent of adults and five percent of adolescents are addicted to their mobile phones. This means that mobile phone addiction isn’t a huge issue. For example, there are more young people who smoke. Nevertheless, we should keep an eye out for the warning signs.
How much time do adolescents spend using their mobile phones each day?
Radtke: Many young people use their smartphones very intensively, around two hours each day.
That’s a lot. Is mobile phone use replacing the TV or does watching TV come on top of the two hours?
Radtke: TV is becoming less and less important for young people, who generally prefer the computer. Those two hours are spent using a smartphone, and computer use is added to this. We used to chat with our friends over the phone for hours until our parents stood in the doorway, whereas nowadays young people use messaging services for this. It’s simply a different way of communicating. If that’s all a person ever does, that’s when it becomes a problem.
At some stage during excessively long phone calls, our parents would appear in the doorway and tell us to get off the phone. How should parents nowadays handle a situation where they believe their children are spending too much time with their smartphone?
Radtke: This mainly relates to the media skills of parents. They should first critically observe and regulate their own smartphone use. Then they can be good role models by for example deliberately putting their phone aside. They can then teach their children to follow suit. If necessary, parents can also set time limits for smartphone use, for example two hours per day.
Two hours a day – should parents allow their children to spend that much time using their smartphones?
Radtke: There are recommendations here. Children under three years shouldn’t use any media at all. From three years on, you should add ten minutes of use for each year. This means that older children and teenagers have a considerable amount of time available to them to use their smartphone. However, I think it’s fairly difficult to implement even the first recommendation of not allowing children under three any time with a smartphone.
Why is that?
Radtke: Children want to see what their parents are looking at on their phones. Just think about how today we usually look at photos on our smartphones. The mobile phone is also often a temptation. You’re sitting in the waiting room with a whiny child – it’s so easy to give them your phone and let them watch a film. It used to be that people had to be more inventive in these kinds of situations.
The mobile phone as a kind of sedative for children?
Radtke: It’s surely often used that way.
That’s like giving children sweets to keep them quiet – a bit questionable, don’t you think?
Radtke: Smartphones should never be used as a reward or punishment. And you should think about alternatives: If you’re going to the doctor’s, you could for example bring a book to help keep your child busy while you’re waiting. It used to work in the past, too.
Using media sensibly is something that needs to be learned. Should this be the responsibility of parents or should schools also be involved?
Radtke: It’s the responsibility of parents and schools alike. Schools teach cultural skills such as writing, calculating, reading – and using media should be one of them. How do we research properly? How do we handle content that might not be suitable for children? These are questions that should be discussed in school. Cyberbullying also needs to be addressed. But this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t also do their part. For example they also need to know about the effects of using a mobile phone from an early age, and how they can limit its use.
Where can parents learn about these skills?
Radtke: There are a few organizations that provide help. But these will likely be used by parents who are interested in these questions anyway. As with other topics that concern people’s health, the people who need this kind of help the most are often those who are unlikely to seek it.
So schools should be more involved?
Radtke: At least the schools could reach all parents and children. And communications technologies will also keep evolving. Society and our schools should respond to such developments more quickly. We’re also always lagging behind a bit when it comes to research. Although smartphones have been around for quite some time now, there’s still relatively little research on them.
You mentioned that children under three years shouldn’t be allowed to use smartphones. At what age should parents allow their children to have their own smartphone?
Radtke: A popular answer is when children are 12 years old. But children want to get in on trends and have the same things as everybody else. Parents shouldn’t relent just as a result of peer pressure, however. It’s in their responsibility to address from what age children should be allowed to have their own mobile phone by talking to the school. Maybe other parents are having the same problems and they could then agree on a solution together. What’s important is that there are rules that govern smartphone use in schools. The question about the right age is a difficult one to answer. Personally I’d want to delay it.
Smartphone use is also problematic at work. Why is that?
Radtke: Having a smartphone means that you can always be reached. You can receive e-mails on your phone even when you’re on holiday. Or you can read work e-mails in the evening and for example see the next project coming your way. You might get angry about something work-related and then not be able to unwind properly and get to sleep. This is why some businesses don’t allow e-mails to be sent after 8 o’clock in the evening. You can also change the settings of your e-mail account so that it doesn’t always announce new messages with a sound. We perceive these sounds as alarm signals that require a response from us. Interim periods – commuting to work, for instance – also shouldn’t always be spent doing work-related tasks, but by reading a book, for example.
There are businesses that expect their employees to be available seven days a week and respond to e-mails within a certain amount of time. Is this sensible?
Radtke: Employees are aware of certain norms at the workplace – such as replying to messages promptly. The question is whether this is indeed the case. You can ask colleagues about their opinions on this and set rules for communicating within the team. Maybe the problem actually lies with ourselves: We’d like to have things resolved quickly, because then they’re done and no longer weigh us down. We should teach ourselves to in some cases wait two days before replying to an e-mail. If it’s really urgent, people will call us on the phone.
How important is it that employers have a clear strategy with regard to handling new media, which includes mobile phones?
Radtke: Businesses should define for themselves how they want to handle digital media. This also makes sense from an economic perspective. A company benefits from having employees who are less stressed and therefore have fewer illnesses and are less prone to burnout. This is why it’s in the businesses’ interests to establish rules that protect their staff.
We need smartphones and also appreciate them. How can we use them while avoiding their harmful effects?
Radtke: We call this digital detox, which means that you deliberately put aside your digital devices. There are studies that indicate that short breaks at work make people more relaxed and productive. In one of our studies, we examined whether this also works when it comes to smartphones. We studied employees employed with a workload of 80% or more, and had them switch off their smartphones twice a day for at least one hour. During these breaks, they were unable to use their smartphone and could no longer be reached either. We expected that the subjects would be able to unwind from work more easily in the evening, that they would sleep more soundly, and that they would feel less pressure about replying quickly. But our study was unable to confirm these hypotheses. We couldn’t demonstrate that the breaks had any effect.
So the breaks had no effect at all?
Radtke: A few subjects reported that they actually felt stressed about defining and taking such breaks. We also measured how much time they spent using their smartphones. A comparison between these subjects and those in a control group, who didn’t take any breaks, showed that at the end of the day, both groups of people used their smartphones for the same amount of time. In other words, those who took a break from their phones caught up with those who didn’t.
This sounds like a lose-lose situation: Constantly checking your messages is stressful, but it’s also stressful to not check your phone for one hour?
Radtke: There are people who like to integrate work and leisure. For them it’s stressful if they can’t read their e-mails and messages. But there are also those who prefer to keep the two separate, and for them a one-hour break isn’t a problem. For the former, it’s probably better if they check their e-mails and use their phones instead of refraining from doing so for a certain time.
Should we also take things into our own hands when it comes to mobile phone use?
Radtke: Yes, absolutely. We could consider wearing a wristwatch again instead of using our smartphones to tell the time, because you often end up also checking for new messages.
The senior teaching and research assistant at the Chair of Applied Social and Health Psychology at the University of Zurich performs research into the effects of smartphone breaks on our health and into ways of promoting healthy behavior among children and adolescents as well as in families. Her research is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, among others.
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