A nation addicted to smartphones

This is the cunning strap line accompanying the release of Ofcom‘s recent information-rich report on the communications market. The adoption of fully-featured mobile phones (Blackberry, iPhone, Android) has rocketed in the past 12 months. Furthermore, according to the report

When asked how addicted they are to their mobiles phones, 37% of adult smartphone users admitted high levels of ‘addiction’ to their phone, with this rising to 60% of teen smartphone users (p.4).

People with umbrellas in the street. Face of phone user pixelated out.It seems people use their phones in the street, the bathroom, in bed first thing in the morning, and in the midst of social gatherings.

Addiction is a powerfully loaded concept with shameful connotations. Note the scare quotes. “Addiction” is an example of the kind of streetwise coloquial overstatement to which any of us could subscribe happily. You can also be addicted to learning, charitable causes, healthy eating and exercise. If this is addiction then let’s embrace it.

Instead of “addictions” the adoption of smartphones into everyday use could be discussed as the acquisition of new communicative habits or new media practices. Walking quickly in the rain, cleaning your teeth, rubbing your eyes in the morning and eating with a knife and fork are habits.

So people now habitually use their smartphones in many contexts. These are practices they fall into without thinking. It’s a habit from which they are extricated only by a conscious exercise of will.

Academic researchers have long scrutinized the social changes brought about by ubiquitous mobile media. The book on mobile phone usage in Japan by Mizuko Ito et al captures the trend towards ubiquity well, even in its title: Personal, Portable, Pedestrian. The pedestrian is the ordinary, which is to say the habitual, the taken-for-granted, as well as the mobile.

Mobile phone researcher Michael Bull describes “habitual everyday notions of what it might mean to ‘inhabit’ certain spaces such as the automobile, the street, the shopping arcade or indeed the living room” (p.171), thereby linking habit to habitat, ie space.

In so far as they occupy the world of everyday things, pervasive media become part of the regular way of doing things, part of the human being’s habitual and everyday lifeworld.

“A nation habituated to smartphones” is less catchy, but provides a more subtle rubric under which to discuss smartphones. Smartphone habits carry less stigma and social embarrassment than smartphone addictions.

I discuss habits and smartphones in a chapter in The Tuning of Place — which I could have subtitled something like Philosophy for Smartphone Addicts or Habituated to Smartphones.

With a smartphone you can download third party apps that do almost anything: mapping, locating, recording, listening, talking, browsing, shopping. The rapid adoption of fully featured smartphones is impressive, leading no doubt to subtly new ways of thinking about sociability, how we occupy space, what we see and hear, and the ways we tune our interactions with each other and the environment.


  • Bull, Michael. 2005. The intimate sounds of urban experience: An auditory epistemology of everyday mobility. In K. Nyíri (ed.), A Sense of Place: The Global and the Local in Mobile Communication: 169-178. Vienna: Passagen Verlag.
  • Coyne, Richard. 2010. “Chapter 4: Habit” in The Tuning of Place: Sociable Spaces and Pervasive Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.73-89.
  • Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda (eds). 2006. Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Ofcom. 2011. Communications Market Report: UK. London: Ofcom.
  • Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each other. New York: Basic Books.

See also earlier post on Otaku architecture.


  1. Atika says:

    Hi, this is my first post so I’m sorry if it’s poorly researched and ineloquent everyone! I wanted to play devil’s advocate here and say that addiction is indeed a serious word usually reserved for alcoholism, drug abuse and other such physically detrimental activities. I know this article states that you can be addicted to positive things such as charitable causes, healthy eating and exorcise but I would argue that these things do not really qualify as an addiction as I view addiction as physical dependency. Habit seems to fit the use of a smart phone much better than addiction but still comes with a large amount of negative stigma.
    I myself am a smart phone user, I previously owned and iphone3 and have recently traded it in for a samsung galaxy 2. They can be used for fun, ie games, I can download and read books on the bus, I never get lost in any city with the gps maps. When we call using a smart phone a habit which aspect of it are we referring to exactly? Is reading a habit, playing games a habit, listening to music? It seems to me they are simply little portable computers that make life easier. Where’s the negative in that? I certainly can’t see any physical ramifications unless one is so engrossed by their smart phone that they walk out in front of a bus. Are we simply a society that fears the new?

  2. Egle says:

    Atika, you are right when you say that smart phones make our lives easier. Just as computers they are made to make our life easier, however just as with computers there can be a negative aspect in using smart phones. They should help, not control our lives. And that is where one can draw a line between a habit of using a smart phone and pure addiction.
    This article made me think that there are actually a lot of negative aspects in using smart phones: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/aug/04/smartphones-usage-ofcom-report . It seems like the device created to help us stay in touch and be sociable (one can text, call, access facebook, twitter, email, etc.) is actually making us antisocial. It looks like people are replacing normal communication with interacting via smart phones. The society where texting while one is in a social gathering, or where first task of the day becomes checking your smart phone, is just a bit depressing. And in my opinion that kind of use of smart phones is unhealthy and can be clearly called addiction.
    There is a saying “Out with the old, in with the new” and I do believe that smart phones should be adopted as a mean of modern communication. They should be a part, but not the ONLY WAY people interact.

  3. chelseyf says:

    Technology as an extension of the human body is simply fascinating, whether it is the technology of a car extending the foot, a telephone extending the ear, or something even more intricate. But when I think about some of the more complex technologies used today, I begin to wonder what exactly they are extending. Would it be fair to say that advancements such as the internet function as an extension of something more abstract, such as human memory? As previously discussed, the images and words available online are not memories in themselves, but are more akin to placeholders by which memories are stirred. But what of smartphones, whose capabilities are so wide-ranging? It almost seems that a device which extends vision, hearing, memory, and more could be classified as a ‘human’ extension.

    The advent of the motor vehicle did not bring an end to walking, but even if a technology does not outright replace the part of the body it is extending, is it not true that it becomes harder and harder to imagine life without the it, almost as though the device becomes incorporated into the body? Take a mobile telephone, for instance, nearly everyone has one, and the extension of both the ear and the voice now seems a natural and necessary part of everyday life. A dead battery or a glitch in network service becomes disorienting, as though one has lost the ability to communicate with others because the technological extension of one’s voice and ear is disabled. Could this be seen as a negative dependence upon technology, an addiction? Or is technology just the next stage in our evolutionary walk?

    Are we actually turning into virtual cyborgs? We might not be comprised of electrical pieces and parts, but our continual interaction with electronics almost allows them to constitute parts of our bodies. Is this the difference between addiction and habituation – when we fail to see the separation between a device and ourselves? Perhaps we should aim more towards a progressive habituation, wherein we are able to utilize technology as an extension of our habits, as Atika suggests, while refraining from the more addictive behaviours with potentially negative consequences that Egle mentions. But where does one draw a line between the two? Is it possible to do so successfully?

  4. Beth says:


    Good thought with our already being virtual cyborgs. We rely so much on technology to keep us engaged and connected with the world. I am not a smart phone user. I can’t be bothered to have the ability to check my email or Facebook at all times. As it is, I find that I rely too much on the internet for restaurant reviews, entertainment, music. It removes some of the serendipitous aspects of life.

    In terms of finding a balance, I believe it is possible, but each person needs to know their limits. Personally, I know the more time I spend in front of a computer screen, the more keen I am to take a walk, interact face to face or attempt to turn off the computer entirely.

    This article reminds me of a short story I recently read, “I grow old, I grow old” by Mary Cutler, from the collection Bugged (2010). The narrator overhears two students:
    “Student 1: How did people manage before mobile phones?
    Student 2: I don’t know. You couldn’t do Uni without them, could you?
    Student 1: No! I mean, how would you meet people? You’d have to, like, say you were going to be at a certain place at a certain time!”

    As we continue to move forwards, how much more will we depend on mobiles? Today, I attended a networking event that included our texting messages to find others who are interested in the same areas of research. The idea was cool, and I enjoyed seeing the messages appear on the screens. I didn’t send any, preferring to observe and chat at will.

    In this day, I cannot see our society really existing without smart phones or standard mobiles. So many of our interactions rely on them. Just today, I forgot my phone at an event and immediately freaked out, simply for now being out of touch for the five minutes I had misplaced the phone.

  5. stever says:

    I’m generally in agreement that a lot of hyperbole in relation to technology exists. However, I wouldn’t agree that addiction is some sort of ‘concept’ or even all that shameful. Certainly not in any real world sense. Though
    as a media label, its a fairly powerful device.

  6. Guirong Zhang says:

    I agree with Egle’s idea that smartphone is actually making people antisocial although it brings people lots of positive influences. As you may notice, the sale of smartphones is increased rapidly in recent years, especially for IPhones and Nokia smartphones. When you walk on the street, people with smartphones is everywhere. They use it as an essential tool of mapping, locating, surfing Internet, listening music, interacting with friends and even shopping online. Indeed, smartphones associate people more closely. People can follow the latest news of friends and families at any time without meeting them in person. However, by providing such powerful functions, smartphones eliminates the communications with others. For example, now, when one goes to a strange place, he may get lost in the new environment. In the past, he will ask pedestrians or locals and chat with them as well. While, today, he will choose to use smartphone to find the right direction rather than talking to others. This small change actually reflects how smartphones affect our social life. It makes us to lose chances to making friends with strangers. Therefore, although smartphones are very handy to use, we should not let them occupy our whole life.

  7. ddmyun says:

    I agree the example that Guirong mentioned. When I first came here I lost my way a lot. Since wireless Internet was not available yet on my smartphone, I have to ask help from the passers-by. Their warm-heartedness and smiles made me feel warmth in an alien land. However, as soon as I could use my smartphone for directions, I lost chances to contact the locals. Although map application in smartphone is helpful, it makes me feel I am wandering in a 3D virtual game rather than in a real city.

  8. Boteas Orfeas says:

    I agree with Egle that the use defines if we are addicted to an electronic device or not.But we are the ones who judge ourselves and we cannot always realize how much we depend on a smartphone; we cannot recognise whether our opinion is based entirely on online or human sources and maybe we cannot define need. Not only because of the frequent use of the Internet and the other facilities that a smartphone provides but because in every field, human interactivity tends to be replaced by technological devices or machines.
    I believe that we should acknowledge the fact that technology as an extension of the human body as chelseyf has mentioned is inevitable and makes our lives easier but we should rely less on its accuracy and try to experiment with alternative solutions as well; as Guirong mentioned if we are lost, instead of using google map we can ask someone for the right direction.
    Once I was sitting with a friend on a beach and instead of talking and enjoy our time there, my friend was checking his facebook and he was chatting with someone online. This is an example of how smart phones can lead in a type of addiction and reduce our interaction with reality and the ability to enjoy the present moment.
    On the other hand smart-phones provide us with several mobile facilities that can help people to widen their knowledge, for example dictionary apps,e-books, internet access etc. Maybe the way we use them defines if the time we spend with them is worthwhile.

  9. Hu Wang says:

    I wouldn’t say that smartphones are eliminating communications as Guirong suggested. In fact, it provides alternative ways to communicate with other people, and with the environment as well, which is not necessarily a bad thing if people prefer it over conventional face-to-face or telephone conversations. I think a person not enjoying a chat with mates in a pub has nothing to do with whether he’s got a smartphone or not. He will probably communicate less if he doesn’t have a smartphone to send a Facebook message.
    I work in a shop, and I know some people absolutely hate the self-scan checkouts while others prefer to interact with the machines and avoid conversations with cashiers. Some people even choose to do their shopping online, or on a smartphone, and have it delivered to their door or collect it instore. After all, it’s all down to people’s preferences.
    It only becomes a bad thing when you do realise the way you use your smartphone affects your social life or your health but somehow you cannot change your habit. In my opinion that’s when it becomes an addiction.

  10. NathalieWeidhase says:

    I would agree that smartphones do not necessarily eliminate communication, but they definitely influence the way we communicate. Although I don’t own a smartphone (just a relatively simple phone that allows me to check Facebook – if the reception is good enought), I noticed that I don’t use it much to make calls, I prefer to text or write short emails and Facebook messages in order to communicate with friends. I guess it makes it more efficient, but at the same time less ‘sensual’, as it takes away the spontaneity and the ‘human touch’ of the sound of the voice of someone you care about.

    What I find even more interesting (or rather baffling) is that so many teenagers own smartphones (I think the article Egle referred to said half of teenagers own a smartphone). Seeing as smartphones are rather expensive (compared to your generic pay-as-you-go phone), how can they afford them? Do their parents pay for them? Or has there been a masssive surge in pocket money since I was a teenager? Additionally, a lot of students and recent graduates have smartphones. The same people who constantly use their iPhones to check directions complain about their student debt, unemployment and ‘being skint’. Yet they use the small amount of more or less disposable income to buy a device which is more of a toy (I can see the allure of a shiny, new smartphone. They are useful, but I think mostly it’s just great entertainment to play around with it. And you are perfectly able to survive without it.) than a necessity. I wonder what it says about us that we are so attached to a status symbol in such economically trying times.

  11. Kinan Ballagh says:

    After reading through this post I could not help drawing a few parallels with the subject of my final essay which involves the use of personal stereos and other ubiquitous devices such as the Smartphone.

    For me associating the word addiction with Smartphone use seems slightly exaggerated. Whilst it is true that for certain users the Smartphone is an important part of their daily lives, it seems unlikely that they would suffer from the serious forms withdrawal such as those experienced by smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts etc.

    To these users the Smartphone may have become an integral component of the daily routines; for example busy professionals can read and write work-related e-mails or schedule meetings on the go whilst commuting to and from work. However if the smart phone was taken away the worst possible side effect that could occur is a decrease in work-related productivity leading to a sense of unease or insecurity within the user. Maybe it is due to this sort of convenience offered by these devices that users develop a form of reliance, attachment, and dependency to their Smartphones.

    Depending on the environment in which the user may find him or herself in, such technologies may provide a range of uses which as a result seem to immerse the user into a form of isolation thereby removing themselves from their immediate surroundings and promoting states of accompanied solitude (what Theodor Adorno refers to as states of we-ness). Perhaps this form of immersion (on the users’ behalf) can be mistaken or perceived by others as an addiction to their device?

  12. Zongping Shi says:

    I used iPhone since 2007, but of course at that time what I had was the very first ancestor of the iPhone family. I wasn’t addicted to my phone and I aren’t as well, thank god to that. Maybe at first I was obsessed with the games and interesting apps, for instance Instagram, Angry Birds (yes I’m a big old cliche), DoodleJump, Talking Tom and something like that. However, gradually (usually less than two or three weeks, one month tops I suppose) I lost my interests in those apps in all kinds, but instead using just very a few of them, and eventually I ended up just using the text and call function. Oh right, as well the IPOD function, how can I forgot that! Every morning the first thing I will do besides open my eyes is to turn my music on. I usually have to wake up with music, but my PC is a bit far away from my bed so my phone becomes my best buddy at this time – I use my phone as my music player. I think people, especially those smartphone “geeks” (no offense, I actually find this word quite cute) may probably think that it’s such a waste for me to have a smartphone because I nearly don’t use those “smart” functions. As for the accusation of making people become antisocial, I find the mapping and locating functions quite useful, but don’t worry you will lose the chance to ask and talk to the locals or pedestrains- the gps maps will lead me to where I want to be, but hey! The truth is the gps maps ONLY lead me to somewhere close to the destination, but never the exact place, and then abandons me there. Three weeks ago I went to Glasgow all by myself, the mapping function in my phone helped, well, not a lot, but it helped- at least it led me to the noted Cathedral. I think those mapping apps like GoogleMap are good for searching some “big” place, literally big building that you will notice when you are approaching to them (for instance, the Cathedral), but doesn’t work well if where you are going is just some place with an easy-to-be-neglected entrance (yes I’m talking about you poor Central Station of Glasgow). I also have apps about movies like Flixster and IMDb in my phone, which tell you the box office, rating of the movies, upcoming movies, etc. But if I really want to watch a movie, I won’t care how many stars or rotten tomatoes it got from other audiences, I just go and watch it. So whether people are addicted to their smartphones or not and how bad they are obsessed with those apps, to me, really depends. But no matter what I think the advent of smartphones is a good thing and it DOES make people’s lives much easier.

  13. Yi Yang DDM says:

    Once upon a time everyone wanted a ball pen and eventually everyone obtained one. As the price of gadgets go down universal ownership will happen. While currently these gadgets such as the smartphones are cheap for audience to have one. Investigation data in newspapers shows that smart phone ownership is on the risen and across all ages from the young to the aged. In light of the phenomenon beside, mobile phone users continue to upgrade their equipment to the latest and intelligence version. Thus the useful life of the phone is constantly reduced. More and more young people even the pupils have their own smartphones. Smartphones produced for the old bring great convenience for them to use. Now, smartphone is no longer a call tool for us, it stresses the intelligence of the phone. Smartphones run applications and access the internet. You can also send emails and locate your position. The development of smartphones has brought enormous benefits to producers and investors. I still clearly remember a constant stream of people queue up to buy iPhone 4s in the apple store. In the smartphone market, Google and Apple occupy most of the market share. They are both winners in mobile race. Many people choose to use the Android operating system. Of course, there are many people favor in the iPhone for Apple is still apart in hardware. A group of people own a smartphone from H.T.C. While, whatever device you choose, all of them are successful products. They provide consumers with a platform to download applications to facilitate their lives.

    Smartphones seem like an unbreakable part of our life, using it has become a habit. While, smartphone is not all of life, we cannot be addicted to it. The over use of the high tech devices will alienate the interpersonal relationship that exists between people for a period of time. There are some security risks. A lot of applications are relying on the network. The user may leak their phone number and unique serial number or other information in the phone without knowing. There are also many users frequently complain about smartphones have a short battery life.

    When it comes to benefits of smartphones, I intent to say it is a good time saver for people who devote all their time to social activities. In other words, without going outside, people can possibly avoid the rush hours and traffic jams when they make an appointed with friends. With the great help of new technology, people may communicate with others without concerning about regional limits. Namely, no matter where one stays, he or she can get in touch with people on the timely.

  14. Jonathan Pang says:

    Whilst I agree with Kinan that possible smart phone addicts do not experience the same withdrawal symptoms as drug addicts, alcoholics, etc. I think each and every addict has their own form of psychological withdrawal symptoms. We most commonly label addiction to drugs, alcohol, and smoking, mainly due to media. I’ve never personally seen a drug or alcohol addict, but I could imagine what one would look like from what I’ve seen on the TV or in films. Maybe if we thought about other addictions such as to video games and exercise for example, and think about how these addicts would react if we took those things away from them. I imagine a video game addict would have a hissy-fit and have tantrums.

    We may not think that smart phone addiction exists, maybe perhaps it is because we, ourselves, are not addicted to our smart phones and possibly don’t know anyone that is. Bare in mind that the smart phone era is only in its infancy and I’m sure there are people out there in the world who are somewhat addicted to their smart phones. Having said this, I personally see smart phones as an aid for our daily lives – be it for calling, texting, GPS, taking photos, or listening to music – rather than a device we can be addicted to. It would be interesting to find out how many millennials did not use their smart phones at all for more than 24 hour period or even find out if they remember the last time they did not use their smart phone for more than a day, unless of course they are on holiday or left it at home. I would assume these numbers would be quite small.

    1. egle says:

      I have been reading articles about internet addiction for my essay. I would assume the addiction to smart phones is something similar. The main symptoms of withdrawal include social anxiety, loneliness and even depression.

  15. Giacomo says:

    I think addiction is a good way of describing much common behaviour linked to the use of smartphones. I bought my first smartphone only one and a half month ago but I can already tell the difference in the way and how much I use it. Before my Android, I used to have only very simple phones, essentially only basic Nokia. Nevertheless I was always obsessively checking if I was receiving a text. The constant need to be in touch with the “absent others” was and it’s still one of the main reason why people are so addictive to smartphones. However, since the advent of the iPhone and then all those multi-touch replicas, the reasons behind smartphone’s addiction have deeply increased. Today’s technology allow us to carry in one single little device a vast amount of data and information that used to remain in our table computers at home and/or at work. This phenomenon as brought to gigantic increase of tasks and functions that can be now accomplished on our mobile devices. Mobile phones have now become devices of “continuity”; they link one place to another by letting us not stopping the stream of information and communication with the urban environment.
    Let’s think for example of Facebook: the facebook app is probably the most downloaded application on every smartphone in the market. It has been created for every possible mobile platform so now every user can literally start a conversation, or a comment and carrying the interaction on the bus, in the street, etc. Mobile games are also another reason for addiction. Smarphones are now more powerful that personal computer of less than 10 years ago, the age when almost all computers where impersonal gigantic boxes. We have incredible 3D games with the same quality of a Playstation 2’s games (considered at that time a huge leap forward in computer graphics). The mobile game market is literally exploding thanks to mobile phone’s ubiquity.
    For working purpose, cell-phones are also an incredible tool, letting the users to coordinate their schedules and re-organize meetings in a blink of an eye. One single little device can now accomplish the same functions of a multitude of informatics tools.

  16. O. Phyte says:

    As we all know, cell phones have become a necessity of everyday life. They nurture the personal requirements of a person, and give a sense of worth ensuring constant contact with close ones. Researchers found out that staying in continuous interaction with other human beings is addictive and that is what smartphones encourage, together with supportive “inexpensiveness” of text messaging. Smart advertising has made mobile phones even more affordable to people, no contract and no warranties. As of this, it is one of the most expensive ways to pay.

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