In 2007, Steve Jobs presented the iPhone to the public. Several months later, the day the phones went on sale, the Guardian published an article headlined “iPhone set to struggle”.
“Apple’s iPhone combines a phone, music and video player with web and email capabilities, but researchers found demand for these converged devices was lowest in affluent countries,” the article said.
But despite their sudden ubiquity, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how our smartphones are affecting us. Are they alienating people from each other, or helping them to connect with others? Do they affect children differently than adults? And how do we step away from our phones if our whole lives are on them?
There isn’t a broad consensus as of yet; different studies draw different conclusions. To attempt to capture the current state of the discussion surrounding smartphones, we spoke to five experts. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meet the experts
Why are so many people worried about their phone use?
Anna Lembke: Because many people feel themselves caught in the vortex of compulsive overuse. Some people even hate their phones, but still struggle to reduce use. In 2021, US adults spent on average eight hours with digital media each day. A growing body of evidence shows that the more time a person spends consuming digital media each day, the more likely they are to struggle with depression and anxiety. We see clinically that when depressed and anxious patients spend less time online, mood and anxiety improve without our having done any other intervention.
Gloria Mark: Yes. We know empirically that people’s attention spans have shortened over the last 20 years. We also know anecdotally, from what people report, that they’re more distracted.
Amy Orben: It’s a very human trait to worry about new technologies: people were concerned about the printing press corrupting society. So that’s a major part of it. But also the technologies are different now, they’re more personalized. I think the concern about phones as a singular entity are overblown. Phones are tools. And like all other technologies, their impact really depends on who uses them and how. There are valuable concerns about specific types of phone use, and specific ways technologies are designed that I think we should discuss as a society.
Laurence Steinberg: I think people worry when they feel they can’t control their use, especially if they’ve tried to stop or cut back and failed, or if they believe their use is interfering with other aspects of life.
Zoetanya Sujon: Every new technology, when it comes out – from the landline phone to the television – brings to the surface concerns about what is real, what is mediated, what is performative? In that sense, people are right to be concerned, because they have lots of uncertainty ahead. The smartphone is also one of the most intimate technologies. It’s in our pockets. We put it on our faces, it’s close to our bodies. It also has such a wide nexus of uses – work, social, private, very private. When someone’s looking at their phone, you don’t know what they’re doing. But there are also a lot of things that are very pro-social, beneficial and positive. So yes, people are right to worry, but they’re also right to think about things that are more positive.
How does smartphone use affect children and teens differently than adults?
Lembke: Children’s brains are going through a rapid process of development where the circuits they use least are pruned [cut back] and the circuits they use most often made more efficient through a process called myelination. Hence, childhood and adolescence is a critical time of building neural circuits that will provide the scaffolding for the adult brain.
If children are spending all their time online, they will have a complex and elaborated neural scaffolding for that but not for other important activities, like learning delayed gratification, frustration tolerance, in-person socialization, mind-body connection, etc. Also, adolescents are exquisitely sensitive to social cues and so are more likely to be influenced by the social contagion effect of the internet.
Mark: Children have developing minds, and there’s a part of the mind that’s called executive function, and this doesn’t really mature until children become teenagers. It’s a really important part of the brain because it helps us filter out distractions. But for kids, this part of the brain isn’t developed completely, so they don’t have as great an ability to control distractions as people who are older.
Kids also develop habitual behaviors. With using their phones, once they have these habits developed, they’re really hard to break. If, instead of spending their time playing outside with other kids, they develop a habit of spending time on your phone, they lose a proprioceptive sense of behavior – an understanding of their body moving through space. It’s important for kids to get outside, run around, play and develop coordination, but being on their phones and computers doesn’t give them the chance to develop that.
Orben: A key part of these “moral panics” [surrounding new technologies] is that, historically, they’re often about people who are not power holders in society. Largely women and kids. But I do think there are reasons why we might be more concerned about young people. They are the canaries in the coalmine. They use technologies early, and they often adopt them the fastest. So by studying them, we might be able to predict what will happen in other groups. They’re also in a period of development where their brains are still developing their social skills. And if you’re a teenager, that’s an inherently social time where you really care about what other people think, and where the social parts of the online world can have a heightened impact.
Steinberg: The literature on teenagers is inconclusive, and few studies have the ability to determine causality. Some studies find very small correlations between social media use and mental health problems, but most research can’t distinguish between cause and effect, and there are studies that show that kids who are depressed tend to use social media more than non-depressed kids, so that depression is “causing” the social media use, rather than the reverse. Very few studies have adequate controls for confounding variables.
Sujon: There’s huge debate here. There’s probably as much evidence about the harmful effects of media, including smartphones, as there is about the positive effects. One of the big concerns is that children are still developing, and have less capacity to navigate things like advertising, and the wild and startling worlds that phones give access to.
What do we know about how phones affect our day-to-day social interactions?
Lembke: Social media invites comparisons between ourselves and other people, leaving many of us feeling that we can never measure up to the illusory standards of achievement, beauty or happiness that are portrayed online. This is turn can contribute to learned helplessness, depression and anxiety. The AI algorithms that track us push to more extreme content which can contribute to polarization and consumption of more extreme content, neither of which is good for fostering civil discourse or for emotional and mental wellbeing.
Social media can maintain relationships, but it’s not going to enable people to develop meaningful, deep relationship Dr Gloria Mark
Mark: It’s decreasing the amount of social interaction people have with each other. People, in my view, are losing the ability to develop deep relationships with other people, because where is their attention? It’s on social media. And social media can maintain relationships, but it’s not going to enable people to develop meaningful, deep relationships.
Orben: We shouldn’t be surprised that many things can have both a positive and a negative impact. For example, a group that people are very interested in is LGBTQ+ teenagers, because they often say that being online is a crucial part of their wellbeing because it allows them to connect with similar people and explore their identity. But they’re also a group that are much more bullied online and can have much more negative experiences. It’s a complex space, and we need to acknowledge that.
Steinberg: With respect to teenagers, the research suggests that if teens use social media mainly to stay in touch with friends whom they also see face to face on a regular basis, it isn’t problematic. But when using phones replaces face-to-face interaction, it can be. So it’s the absence of face-to-face interaction, not the presence of phone use, that’s the problem.
Sujon: It’s very contradictory. You get things in the media like “phubbing”, when people are snubbing [ignoring] other people to be on their phones. But there are ways in which it’s pro-social. People can create beautiful things with photos, film and videos. YouTube, for example, is one of the important streaming services where people can be creative and find community. That’s really powerful. I would say that phones are absolutely not a luxury. If you don’t have one, you’re excluded from many important social, professional and everyday institutions. If you need to make a hospital appointment on a mobile website, you will be physically at risk if you can’t do that.
Should smartphone use be more regulated?
Lembke: Yes. This is a communal problem. All branches of societies, from individuals to families to schools to corporations to governments, need to come together to help solve this problem, especially when it comes to exposing children to harmful use. Schools should top-down ban smartphones from schools, not just the classroom but from use at any point during school hours so that kids will be freer to learn and to socialize. If there are safety concerns, the child can have a dumb phone that has calling capacity for emergencies. We need to build an infrastructure inside of medicine to help those who become addicted to the internet, from pornography to sports betting to video games to social media.
Mark: I am a big proponent of Right to Disconnect laws. France has one, Ontario, Canada, has a policy, and Ireland has a policy. I will say, there was a study done in France to look at how well the law worked, and they found it to be a mixed bag. Employees liked it, but the employers didn’t. So, employers didn’t always follow it, and it wasn’t necessarily enforced. That tells me there really needs to be a cultural change along with policies and laws.
Orben: When we design public infrastructure, we consider the design, and we have regulations in place and decision-making processes that are inherently public. The issue with technology is that we’re dealing with private – but kind of public – infrastructure, where those decisions are made behind closed doors by people who have different motivations, including profit. Just because I acknowledge the complexities of impact doesn’t mean that I don’t believe we should do better in ensuring that our public infrastructure around how we interact online is safe, environmentally appropriate.
Steinberg: I think parents should regulate their kids’ use. I don’t think the evidence is strong enough or conclusive enough to warrant government intervention, though. I also think that social media companies should provide guidance and advice for parents and teenagers on healthy versus unhealthy use.
Sujon: This is tricky. You look at schools and even some universities saying ‘no phones’, and I think, in the environment we live in, that’s a little bit dangerous. If someone needs to talk to a family member, and they can’t, or they’ll be punished, I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy. Where we need regulation is around content providers and streaming services. Between YouTube’s recommendation systems, which often feed negative content to keep people there and in this state of excitement, and things like TikTok, it’s really difficult to regulate content that’s age-appropriate for kids, teens and adults. Those platforms need to be more regulated, and that will have an impact on how and where smartphones are used, because they are conduits towards those systems.
How do we get people to step back from their smartphones when it can feel like one’s entire life – social, professional, personal – is on there?
Lembke: It’s very hard. Encourage teens to come together in friendship circles and together take a break from their phones for four weeks. Doing it together makes it easier: less Fomo, more support. Many people who take a break from their phones for that period of time feel so much better, they are determined to use them differently, and less. By making a detailed plan of what that will look like, they often succeed.
Mark: There are things that individuals can do, but managers and organizations really need to step up and play a role. We need to see a change in culture. Managers need to communicate to teams that it’s not permissible to send electronic communications after work hours. There needs to be a collective solution.
Orben: The addiction metaphor is often quite difficult to work with, because our phones aren’t like heroin. We have to use them. And they don’t have that severe brain impact. Phones are more like food. We all need to eat, but the way our food system is set up isn’t great. It has ways in which it’s designed and shaped by corporations, and even though we’re all experiencing the same ecosystem, different people experience it in different ways. Similarly with phones, it’s about our motivations, and it’s about reflection and what works for us and what doesn’t.
Steinberg: It’s very hard because the devices serve multiple purposes. One suggestion many experts make is to not use these devices after one retires for the evening or when having meals with others. But I think that to be effective, parents need to do this as well as teens.
Sujon: It’s a complicated question, because it’s not just about smartphone use, it’s about what are you doing in your life and where your focus is. It’s about stepping back and making sure that there’s a balance across the needs you have in your life, whether those are social, creative or professional. Also, these technologies are designed to be sticky. So [overuse] is not just a personal failing, it’s not because you, or I, or our children, are incapable of regulating ourselves. They’re designed to pull us in.
Twenge: Groups have to get together to change the norms. That’s already happened to an extent. People recognize that 24/7 accessibility is not a good way to live.Gen Z fully recognizes mental health and wellness, and are at the forefront of that issue, and I think this is one of the things we’re going to start hearing more about.
How would you describe your own relationship to your phone?
In 2021, US adults spent on average eight hours with digital media each day Anna Lembke
Lembke: I didn’t have a smartphone until about five years ago when I was required by the hospital to get one in order to prescribe medications. I was one of the only people I knew not to have a phone. In the first two decades or so of this century, I didn’t build my life around my phone, so today, I remain independent of it. I carry it with me for work, but it is turned off in my bag most of the time. I don’t give out the number. I use it when I travel for rideshare. That’s about it.
Mark: I don’t use my smartphone as much as other people. I have a colleague who’s younger than I am, and I told him that when I walk into another room, I don’t carry my phone with me. And he was shocked. I use my phone when I go running every day, and I use my phone to listen to audiobooks.
Orben: It’s a core part of my life. I went into this research area because I was part of the first generation to use social media. In my school years, it shaped me like any other part of my life did. It’s been crucial to my career. It’s also been stressful and harmful in other ways. I have mixed emotions. I think something needs to change, but also I wouldn’t want to go back to a life where I can’t FaceTime my grandma.
Steinberg: I’ve stopped using social media (I used Twitter when I was promoting a book, but that was the only use, and I’ve stopped because it wasn’t effective). I use it mainly to do email for work and the occasional text with family members. But because so much of my work is done through these media, I spend a lot of time using my phone. I will admit that my email use has become compulsive at times, mainly because I love the feeling of having an empty inbox and I don’t want to miss any email from the Nobel committee.
Sujon: I am absolutely one of those people who probably overuses it. I use it for work. I joke with my kids that I’m the mamarazzi – it’s my job to take pictures and document family life. I enjoy that. I don’t share very much information on social media. So I use my phone quite intensively, but I keep that separate from my public profiles. I also put measures in place where I try to take small, regular breaks, as well as during family time and social interactions.
What do you think the most important thing is that people need to understand about smartphones?
Lembke: Smartphones are powerful tools and potent drugs. Using them as a tool is smart. As a drug, not so much.
Mark: That it’s not a replacement for human, in-person contact.
Orben: They’re not a monolith. They are very complex technologies that combine a lot of different activities, a lot of different apps and designs. And if we talk about it as one thing, we’re inherently going to get it wrong.
Steinberg: They are tools, and they can be put to good use and bad use. I also think that what we are seeing is a pretty familiar story: whenever kids start using a new technology or form of entertainment, adults point the finger at it as the root of all things evil. It happened with dime-store novels, radio, comic books, television, rock’n’ roll, hip-hop, the internet, and so forth. Each time, critics of the technology or medium would say “this time is different”. And each time, it turned out that people were worrying with little cause for concern. So stay tuned.
Sujon: Smartphones are part of a much greater media ecosystem. They’re the interface to that media system, so it’s hard to separate the two. Being aware of that is really important.