SMARTPHONES ARE everywhere, literally. Picture this: a middle-aged man is twiddling his thumbs as he waits for a snooker game to load on his device, his other phone peeking out of his shirt pocket. Standing next to him is a young lady lugging two big bags. She manages to pull off a multi-tasking masterpiece by plugging her earphones into a Lumia smartphone, making a couple of calls and playing Candy Crush Saga simultaneously. Just then, a bunch of friends boards the packed Delhi Metro laughing and shouting, but in a matter of minutes, their heads are bowed over the dimly-lit screens of their smartphones.
“We live in two worlds: the digital and physical worlds. Over time, the digital world has almost taken over. I recently read that our attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish’s… These facts worry me,” says Ingmar Larsen, co-founder, NoPhone, the world’s first simulated smartphone. NoPhone’s website describes it as “a technology-free alternative to constant hand-to-phone contact that allows you to stay connected with the real world.”
As per the Ericsson Mobility Report 2015, Indian smartphone users, on an average, spend over three hours daily on their devices and 25% of them check their phones over 100 times a day. The report provides “insights into current traffic and market trends in today’s networked society”.
The age of distraction
It’s not only smartphone addiction that is a cause for worry, but the ensuing distraction, which is actually making matters worse. “Smartphone addiction is a very common problem these days. More and more cases turn up every day. I have seen cases where children stay up all night with their phones and other devices, with the result that they are cut off from school. They are losing interest in studies,” says Aruna Broota, a clinical psychologist. “The American Psychological Association has termed this ‘e-addiction’, which involves gadget and electronic addiction. And like any other addiction, there is underlying evidence of depression as well,” she adds.
A recent survey by software security group Kaspersky Lab cited how an overkill of smartphones and the Internet could lead to ‘digital amnesia’. The survey mentioned how many of us don’t rely on our memory to recall information any more, and instead use search engines to establish facts and get answers.
It was this that prompted Larsen and his team to come up with NoPhone. “My friends and I were at a rooftop bar in New York City. We looked up from our phones and realised that everyone else was looking at their phones too.
Phone addiction is real. It’s all around us and it’s only getting worse,” says Larsen. “On average, people check their device around 150 times a day. We asked ourselves how we could solve this problem, and that’s when we came up with the idea for NoPhone,” Larsen adds.
Parents, children alike
Like many other things children pick up from their parents, e-addiction is something that begins at home. “I think the initiation is from the parents. They use smartphones during family time and children are witness to it. The mother, father, siblings, relatives—children have enough role models to follow, apart from Bollywood actors,” says Broota.
Pinky Sethi, a New Delhi-based home-maker, agrees that most children are attracted to smartphones because their parents are hooked to these devices. Her two sons, six-year-old Shaarav and two-year-old Shivank, are equally adept at using the iPad. “Right now, we allow Shaarav to play on the iPad for just 15-20 minutes a day. Coupled with the amount of TV he watches, we are worried that it might affect his eyesight,” she says, adding that Shaarav, a student of Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, knows all about Facebook and YouTube. “He caught hold of a spare iPhone we had. He says it belongs to him now.”
The parents’ concerns are genuine, as Broota says many a times such addictions are harmful for one’s health. “With e-addiction, there is junk food addiction as well. This is leading to cardiological and neurological disorders, and problems related to obesity,” she says.
But Sethi believes that in today’s world, exposing children to the world of technology is a necessary evil. “Sometimes, Shaarav loses interest in his storybooks. But if I show him the same story on the mobile or computer, he stays engrossed. These days if children are not aware of what the Internet or a smartphone is, they are considered illiterate,” she says.
Solutions, natural and digital
With the growing addiction, there are also many solutions to get rid of—or control—your dependence on your devices. NoPhone’s specifications are quite simple: there is no camera, no music and no screen. Basically, there is no phone. It is thin, light and completely wireless. NoPhone acts as a surrogate to any smart mobile device, enabling you to hold a rectangle of smooth, cold plastic. It has a height of 5.5 inches and weighs between 80-100 g.
NoPhone, which started out as a personal project, has helped many fight their smartphone addiction. “The response has been overwhelming. NoPhone started as a personal project, but we received requests from people around the world who wanted their own NoPhones. That’s when we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. We raised over $18,000 in just three weeks. In total, we have sold over 3,200 NoPhones worldwide,” Larsen of NoPhone adds. He says organising a ‘NoPhone Day’ could help counter this addiction. “Just leave your phone at home or at your desk when you are in a meeting.”
Apart from dummy devices, there are apps that keep track of your daily phone usage. Some of them such as Moment, BreakFree, Mobile Flow and RescueTime are available across multiple operating system platforms under the category ‘productivity’.
Mrigaen Kapadia, founder of Mobifolio, which developed the app, BreakFree, says the idea of an app that “makes you realise” that you are addicted to your phone struck him after a couple of personal experiences. “My wife and I created BreakFree. We realised that after dinner, both of us would just sit with our smartphones. This was not the case a few years back when smartphones were not prevalent. There was another incident at a party we attended. Initially, everyone greeted each other, but soon 90% of the people were busy with their smartphones,” says Kapadia, who created BreakFree after another trial app called Fuel Buddy.
Kapadia, who used to work with Capgemini as a consultant before founding Mobifolio, developed BreakFree after research on 20-odd people and their smartphone habits. The data from the research helped him differentiate between ‘addiction’ and ‘no addiction’. “Anyone with a smartphone is prone to addiction, be it a child or a 65-year-old. We read up a lot and came to the conclusion that there are two ways to tackle the problem: make people realise they are addicted, and give them ways to withdraw from it—that is what BreakFree does,” Kapadia adds.
As for solutions that include less of technology, Broota says recurring workshops and counselling sessions could work wonders: “Parenting workshops should be conducted more often… Every workshop sensitises you and things improve, but you return to the same state in a few days. So such workshops should be conducted at least six-eight times a year.” Adolescents, Broota believes, are most vulnerable to e-addiction. “Adolescence is a time when you require holistic development. You need to be involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities. There should be counselling sessions that not only cover these problems, but issues related to lifestyle and food habits as well,” she adds.
Kadpadia warns that the social stimulus amongst us is vanishing. “In the long run, our social abilities are waning. We are getting rid of them. And it’s important that people are educated about this. They need to be made aware about the dangers of constantly being stuck to their smartphones. Only then can one consciously make an effort to keep away from smartphones.”