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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Smartphone use: the smoking of our time

CHELBERT DAI / AGGIE
CHELBERT DAI / AGGIE

headshot_SBThe worrying implications of escapism at our fingers

As late as the 1960s, taglines like “More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette!” and “20,679 Physicians say ‘Luckies are Less Irritating!” blared from brightly hued tobacco advertisements. These slogans distracted Americans from long-standing folk wisdom and developing medical knowledge of smoking’s harm.

It horrifies us now that America turned a collective blind eye to the dangers of smoking. Yet our contemporary incessant use of smartphones — the electromagnetic fields of which the World Health Organization said in a somewhat lacking 2011 study could be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” — hearkens back to days of willful ignorance.

Even if we brush aside the cancer conjecture, there is a sharp parallel between smoking and smartphone use: harmful forms of escapism.

Smartphones are addictive. Researchers have found that internet use triggers the release of the dopamine, the same reward chemical implicit in orgasm and (cough, cough) smoking. The tolerance the body builds to the hormone means we eventually need hours of stimulation to match initial levels of gratification. And less exciting activities, like reading, just don’t do it for us anymore. The percentage of 17-year-old girls who “never” or “hardly ever” read for pleasure has increased from nine percent in the pre-smartphone days of 1984 to 27 percent in 2014.

This constant back and forth between virtual and physical realms — the average consumer spends 4.7 hours on their smartphone — also comes with some nasty side effects. A smartphone screen’s blue light harms eyesight, sleep patterns and occipital nerves. The common behaviors of glancing and typing cause long-term damage to our back and wrists. Earbud and headphone use can lead to irreversible hearing loss. Juggling multiple apps at once lowers productivity and can affect emotional intelligence. This is your body on smartphones.

There is a caveat to the smoking analogy. Unlike cigarettes, smartphones can be helpful tools when used the right way. They bring distant loved ones and a world of information to our fingertips. But I implore you to leave your phone at home one of these days, and watch your peers while you go through your daily grind.

Take a ride on Unitrans in the morning. Show up five minutes before lecture to grab a good seat. Line up at TxMx for a delicious taco salad at lunchtime. Stop by Shields to finish up that political theory paper. Hit the ARC to work off that delicious taco salad.

You’re likely to find that, instead of dedicating the devices to productivity, much of our generation uses them to escape the real world. At the first sign of boredom, we immerse ourselves in inane status updates and snap stories. While studying or working out, we drown our inner thoughts with DJ Snake’s blaring bass or Migos’ sweet nothings.  

It’s time to quit.

Giving up chronic smartphone use doesn’t mean sentencing yourself to an ascetic existence. Be mindful. Don’t think of exercise or studying as a chore. Consider that, in the traditions of Socrates and Aristotle, these acts of excellence are themselves the definition of happiness. Listen to your body while doing bench presses. Ponder the intellectual implications of that problem set.

And for true instances of boredom?

Pick up a novel. Bookworms are exposed to 50 percent more words, have 32 percent better cognitive function, are 2.5 times less likely to get Alzheimer’s and have 68 percent lower stress levels than non-readers.

Do a crossword. Doodle. Do origami. Read the newspaper. Play Sudoku. Make small talk. Keep a journal. Daydream. You don’t need cognitive studies to tell you what your common sense knows.

Your brain will thank you.

Written by: Sid Bagga — sabagga@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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