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Banning smartphones: when should we put our devices away?

In Australia, we have more than 20 million smartphones between us. And as our phone usage increases, so does the impact on our lives.

You might feel lost without your phone – but is that a good thing?  A study from the University of Texas suggests smartphones are giving us ‘brain drain’ and spikes in teenage anxiety and depression have been linked to them. The problem is so widespread that ex-Google product manager, Tristan Harris, has founded a non-profit organisation just to wean people off their phones.

A supercomputer in your pocket

Apple launched the first iPhone only 11 years ago, but it’s now almost impossible to imagine life without smartphones.

‘Mobile devices are as natural to young people as the air that they breathe,’ says Dr Marilyn McMahon, Deputy Dean of Deakin Law School.

Modern smartphones pack more computing power than the room-sized supercomputers of decades past. They’ve given us unparalleled access to convenience and we use them for everything: sending texts to our mates, booking festival tickets, and checking that we’re more successful than our exes.

There are apps for party games, safe transport home, finding a great dinner spot, or just getting the perfect snap of you and your friends. You might argue that smartphones have made our lives intrinsically better… but have they really?

Life through a lens

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one captures it on their Instagram story, did it even happen at all? Thanks to our phones, we can all be our own photographers and videographers. But sometimes the obsession with recording our experiences goes too far.

Most of us have been to gigs that seemed to have more glowing screens than people. Melbourne venue, Cherry Bar, banned the use of mobile phones at live music events earlier this year to combat this exact issue. With phones in hand, punters were spending too much time getting the perfect selfie and not enough time enjoying the show they came to see.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival also bans recording at its gigs. It’s distracting for other people watching, and sharing content ruins jokes for future shows. In an interview with the ABC, Director Susan Provan says, ‘Once a joke has gone out there, it’s burnt.’

It’s great to capture a special moment. But you’ve got the perfect shot, don’t forget to enjoy experiences IRL.

'Mobile devices are as natural to young people as the air that they breathe.'

Dr Marilyn McMahon,
Deakin Law School

Disconnect to reconnect

Smartphones have drastically changed the dating landscape. Today, 75% of millennials are using online dating services to search for a serious relationship.

But while your phone might help you find the perfect partner, it might hinder your efforts to keep them. Many women say that overzealous phone checking on a first date is their number one turn-off – and some restaurants in the US are even banning phone use at tables. Using your phone too much at home can lead to a reduction in intimacy and relationship satisfaction.

Families feel the effects as well. One study showed that excessive phone use by parents was causing behavioural issues in their children, while negotiating kids’ screen time is a common cause of family tension.

When it comes to relationships, it seems like disconnecting from our online life could be the key to connecting with the people around us.

Smartphones and education

There’s plenty of noise around getting rid of phones in schools and it’s easy to see why: students get side-tracked, they’re exposed to online bullying, and it’s hard to control the content they have access to. But while phones are a distraction in the wrong circumstances, they can also be used to collaborate on projects, record interactive lecture notes or help students be more productive and focused.

So should we allow mobiles where we study? Dr McMahon believes it’s a debate worth having.

‘Kids are getting these phones at a younger age and there are real issues around how they are taught to use them… how they integrate with their education, how it marries up with socialisation; self-regulatory behaviours. This level of uptake is why this debate is happening.’

But while smartphones are the catalyst for these conversations, Dr McMahon says the issue isn’t the device itself but the lack of self-control.

‘Students need to learn how to self-regulate. Having a mobile phone could be a prime education case – teaching them how to regulate their behaviour rather than banning phones outright. It is much more appropriate to acknowledge their existence and teach good self-regulatory behaviour.’

Having carved such a ubiquitous place in modern society, it’s fair to assume that smartphones are here to stay. But by choosing the right moments to put our devices away, we can enjoy the positives of smartphone culture without falling into any of the pitfalls.

Are you addicted to your smartphone? Take our quiz to find out.

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Dr Marilyn McMahon
Dr Marilyn McMahon

Deputy Dean, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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