The tyranny of the smartphone (and how I learnt to overcome it)

xperia_X2_Women_talking_on_phone_5There’s an ominous warning at my children’s aquatic centre in Gisborne, where they go for swimming lessons once a week.

Two photographs displayed side by side on a sign below the lifeguard’s station show a young child swimming happily underwater and next to the child a photo of a mobile phone.

The message under the gleefully swimming child reads “MAKE SURE YOU FOCUS ON THIS”, and under the mobile phone “NOT THIS”.

Ironically,  many of the intended recipients of this warning – parents who bring their children to swim at the centre – pay little attention to it because they’re so busy tapping away on their mobile devices.

It can take less than a minute for a child to drown – about how long it takes to read and reply to a text message or open a couple of apps.

I don’t of course take a high and mighty position on this worrying evolutionary behaviour – were it not for the fact that I swim with my kids when they have their lessons, I too might be at risk of doing the very same thing.

Indeed, up until relatively recently, I would say I was as addicted to my smartphone as anyone else.

Not only my wife, but my kids would notice my compulsion with constantly checking my phone for messages, or news, or fresh tweets.

In the 24 hour news cycle, amid the constant updates on social media as people share the minutiae of their lives or spout opinions on every possible topic of the day, the smartphone is the gift that keeps on giving.

Or should I say curse?

What kind of a society have we created whereby two people, in a seemingly loving relationship, can sit across from one another in a restaurant and not say a single word to each other, but instead have their heads glued to a little screen, their fingers typing away.

How we cling to our phones like safety blankets to shake off the boredom of living.

It’s the first thing anyone seems to do when they having nothing to do: they pull out their smartphone and start tapping away. I see it when I wait for my train in the mornings, and on the one hour train journey into work.

I see people scrolling through Facebook feeds whilst waiting at traffic lights and often incredibly, while they are driving their cars as they glance down into their laps.

One can only wonder how many people walk into traffic, trip over objects, fall down hills or end up in all sorts of embarrassing accidents because they were distracted by their phones. 

It must be in the millions every day.  According to statistics portal Statista, the number of smartphone users around the world has risen to 2.5 billion out of a global population of 7.7 billion (almost one in three people) and will hit 2.9 billion by 2020.

I remember well what happened in 2013 to a tourist visiting Melbourne who plunged off a pier into the icy waters of Port Phillip Bay whilst looking at Facebook on her phone. She was rescued by police, still clutching that very device.

I also found this viral video clip of a guy in downtown Oklahoma who stood and was bitten by a snake he stepped on, which he failed to notice – whilst texting on his phone.

There are many more examples you can find online.

No doubt such an embarrassing fate awaited me until, one day, whilst with my kids in the park, my attention constantly darting to my phone, an idea popped into my head from the cosmos.

The idea was this: I would abandon my iPhone and buy one of those old-style flip phones they market to older people with the big buttons (or I’d just buy one on eBay), and then the only things I would use my phone for – or could use it for -would be to make and receive phone calls and send text messages.

It would be like going back to a more simpler time, without the distraction of constant updates, when I could focus on the here and now, be with my family in body and mind, not just an empty vessel.

I almost leapt out of the metaphorical bath screaming “Eureka” at my brilliant plan – before reality set in.

What about the app I used to check the train timetable? What about the personal hotspot I used to connect to the internet to work whilst on the train?

And what – shock, gasp, horror – would I do without Google Maps to navigate my way to children’s parties, restaurants, meetings?

Turns out life would actually be a lot harder without my smartphone. And so I abandoned the idea.

But then, my wife – who has a knack for coming up with good ideas I seem incapable of considering – suggested I delete all the apps I didn’t need and keep only those that served a purpose.

And that’s exactly what I did. I deleted all my social media apps – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. All my news apps – the ABC, BBC, Guardian – and all the other digital distractions I could do without.

That was about a month ago. I’ve survived the terminal event.

It hasn’t stopped me from still reaching for my phone for no reason other than to check for some new information, but with nothing much on their anymore, I tend to just put it away and the habit appears to be dissipating.

Am I smelling the proverbial roses a bit more now? Yes I’d say so. Do I notice things more like the country scenery that passes by me on the train? Yes. I do. And am I more present, actually listening to what my wife and kids have to say and actually responding in a meaningful way. I think so.

So  comrades, join the revolution and delete a few apps

Forget about what silly thought bubble someone is spouting on their Twitter feed about a topic they no nothing about, and rejoin the present world of the here and now a bit more.  It’s surprisingly nice.


‘Gadget’ peer pressure or “what’s that piece of cr*p you’re using?”

351571200_1db3e97f22_zI’ll come right out and say it. I don’t yet own a smartphone.

Shock. Gasp. Horror.

I still have one of those Nokia cheapies.

It’s not that bad.

You can search the web if you’re nostalgic and fancy recalling what dial-up internet used to be like… and it has maps that load up just as you reach your destination.

I also don’t own an ipad or any tablet, though I do have a kindle, which my wife bought me for my birthday.

Don’t get me wrong, I like gadgets and if money were no object I’d buy all of them, Stephen Fry-style, in one big splurge (I believe Fry has quite the gadget fetish and likes nothing more than to come home with a crate load of the latest techno gadgets).

I just seem to be making the transition to new technology a lot slower than most and delaying the capital outlay.

It took my wife and I an age to buy a flat screen digital television.

A year ago we were still watching movies on the equivalent of a postage stamp.

It was only when we realised that going to the movies  would be hard when our Edie was born (read my post: My eight months without cinema for more on this) that we splashed out and got a 42 inch beauty for a bit of the home cinema feel.

Funny thing is, some of the older technology is a better suited to my purposes.

For example, going for a run, the tiny little square ipod shuffle (the one Apple brought out in 2006 and are still selling) that weighs as much as a feather and is smaller than After Eight dinner mint is perfect for the task – why bother strapping a full-size ipod to your arm and running lopsided? (Actually, I’ve seen people wearing full-sized ipods or iphones on both arms to balance themselves out I imagine – no kidding.)06shuffle_earbuds

But I have to say, the pressure is rising and I am starting to feel like I’m living in the dark ages for all my lack of technological accoutrements.

It started with a phone call to a family member, which ended with me being admonished for not having an iphone.

“What? You don’t have an iphone?

“What kind of phone do you have?

“You have what?


“Well you better getter one.”

This was followed a few weeks later with this somewhat bitter aside: “You know, if you had an iphone or a Samsung Galaxy I could send you a photo of what I am describing right away?”

“So…when are you getting one?”

Then over dinner with friends a couple of weeks ago “You know you should really get a smartphone. You’re a journalist. You’re a blogger. You really need one.”

And then in the office earlier this week, I was ambushed by my colleagues “You mean, you don’t have an ipad or an iphone?”

Snigger, snigger.

Joke about wife not letting me buy one.

Snigger, snigger.

OK, everyone just calm down. Put away your “Steve Jobs RIP” banners. I get the message.

Yes I know:

  • I’m the only one on the train who doesn’t whip out his smartphone to tap out a message, update their Facebook status or tweet a thought for the day.
  • Yes there are old grannies with perms and tissues tucked under their hand knitted jerseys that can swipe across a smartphone screen faster than flip through a magazine.
  • And yes, the rumours are true, they’ve started giving out an iphone and a book of McDonald’s baby happy meal vouchers (haven’t you heard of the McSlop?) with all new babies born in Australia?

Truth be told I do find myself paging longingly through store catalogues and admiring the phones and tablets on offer, but then when I see the prices or the contracts and the monthly fees I tell myself I can manage another month with my piddling device.

I recall the very first mobile phone my father had.

It was the size 0f a mini rocket launcher and weighed as much as a brick. It could just squeeze into his bedside draw and had a long aerial that you pulled out army style. Boy, was it cool!21581808_45a7b5da91

Flashing forward in time…I’m sitting on court number one at Wimbledon, pork pie in hand, jealously studying a bloke in sunglasses and a tan, snooty girl-friend on his arm, checking his email on a small squarish device called Blackberry.

Whatever happened to those? Apparently even child soldiers in Africa refuse to use them.

But I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m tapping away on a palm-sized gadget, making 1970s-faux images with Instagram and sending witty tweets about advertising slogans while walking around the city during my lunch break.

Hopefully I won’t end up as one of those freakish stories you read about in a little item on page 12 of Mx: man hit by bus while crossing road, laughing at silly photo of monkey wearing underpants on his head on facebook.

Tap tap.