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Why quitting smartphones is the new quitting smoking

Long before iPhones, the cigarette was the companion of choice for fidgety hands. And, long before Facebook, it was tobacco that promised to enhance your social life. Now, quitting smartphones has become the new quitting smoking.

Of course, technology does not yellow your teeth, cause emphysema or lead to cancer. But some individuals are so concerned that device addiction is damaging their mental health that they have spent January trying to reduce their dependence. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, ran a digital declutter experiment with thousands of followers of his blog, while in the UK, Time To Log Off has run a 30-day digital detox campaign.

Even in Silicon Valley, people are turning off the notifications that constantly buzz for their attention, banning smartphones from the bedroom and, curiously, changing the colours on their screens to a less seductive scale of grey.

The big tech companies will have to work out how to respond to this new generation of quitters. Facebook is the first to go public with its attempt, hoping its recent move to slash memes, brands and news from its newsfeed will make the social network feel more homely — filled with friends and family who encourage us to stay.

Last year the tech industry received a label — Big Tech — with unfortunate echoes of other industries that have faced fierce opposition, including Big Tobacco. Like them, the tech industry has to quell concern from a new generation of activist shareholders that are questioning its role in the world. Jana Partners and the California teacher pension fund have urged Apple to consider developing software that would allow parents more options to limit children’s phone use. Arjuna Capital and the New York State Common Retirement Fund have submitted proposals to Facebook and Twitter, calling for them to stop sexual harassment on their platforms. Trillium Asset Management has submitted a proposal to Facebook, arguing it needs a risk committee to consider research linking the site to depression and other mental health issues.

These campaigns are nowhere near as extensive as those faced by Big Tobacco. In the 1990s, socially responsible investors refused to put money in tobacco stocks, activists lobbied for companies to spin off tobacco divisions and even targeted companies with a tangential interest in the business.

It is far thornier for investors to challenge Big Tech and hard to separate the good these companies do in the world — connecting old friends and giving space for people to share their ideas — from the bad. The annual general meeting, where PR posturing meets shareholder grandstanding, may not be the place to reckon with these complexities.

In the meantime, going cold turkey on technology remains problematic. The ability to achieve tech-life balance is becoming a status symbol. In the World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer argues that tech should be seen in a similar way to junk food: a convenience that some reject for more sustaining nourishment.

Given that the average American spends more than four hours a day on their phone, according to research firm eMarketer, I believe we need to do more to turn the tide. We need real rules to nudge people of all backgrounds away from addiction, not just those who feel social pressure to live an offline life.

Perhaps it is here that activists can take the most inspiration from anti-smoking campaigners, by focusing on the impact bad habits can have on others. In the same way that public service announcements made smoking around your children taboo, we can warn parents against losing themselves in their smartphones while taking care of kids. As when non-smoking areas were established in restaurants, we can create no-smartphone zones at dinner. Eventually, smartphones could be banned from all public places, shunned in favour of actually giving our attention to the people around us instead.

Hannah Kuchler is an FT correspondent in San Francisco.

Courtesy : The Financial Times

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