Cell phone usage is becoming the new smoking. These devices are every bit as annoying, addictive, and dangerous to our health as are cigarettes. People now remain glued to their smartphones as they walk their children to school, as they work, and as they eat. The result is widespread second-hand cell damage for the rest of us in public spaces, as others talk within earshot on buses, at airports, on playgrounds, in lobbies, and on park benches. Such cognitive interruption is now pervasive, as are the pings that routinely break up conversations, drawing attention from social interactions to a text, email, or news flash.
The adoption of mobile phones has become a form of social autism. On average, Americans check their phone 80 times a day, and millennials, 150 times daily. About 98 percent of millennials own a cell phone and one survey, by Bank of America, revealed that they engage with their phone more than with actual humans. Of those surveyed, 39 percent said they interact more with their smartphones than with lovers, parents, friends, children, or co-workers.
This fall, France will become the first government to aggressively address the issue by prohibiting every student between 6 and 15 years old, and their teachers, from using cell phones in public schools. This draconian action is not about education alone but is also a matter of “public health,” according to France’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
“We must come up with a way of protecting pupils from loss of concentration via screens and phones. These days the children don’t play at break time anymore, they are just all in front of their smartphones and from an educational [and health] point of view, that’s a problem,” he said at the press conference this winter.
French children will be allowed to bring their phones to school, but not to take them out at any time until they leave, even during breaks. Some parents and educators are upset, but social engineering in schools is a given in France: Witness the controversial “headscarf” ban in 2004 that prohibited the wearing of Islamic coverings and other religious apparel such as crosses or kippahs in public schools.
But a ban against cell phones is not a civil rights matter, and prohibitions by schools, workplaces, and public spaces are gaining popularity in Europe and North America. Many schools forbid phones, and more may follow, as evidence mounts that phones are the chosen tool of cyberbullies. Following two suicides by victims of such bullying, New York City banned cell phones in schools in 2011. But in 2015 the city lifted the ban and left it up to schools to formulate their own policies. Since then, however, the annual incidence of cell phone bullying—often involving fat-shaming and harassment over race, gender, and sexual orientation—has jumped. For these and educational reasons, the issue remains a hot topic amongst politicians and educators. And it should.
Besides attention and abuse issues, there are other health concerns. The use of smartphones, especially near bedtime, is associated with worse quality of sleep, according to a recent study. Media celebrity Ariana Huffington wrote a book about wellness that suggests that everyone should take a rest from devices during the day, and at night “tuck his or her cell into bed.” Only if your phone is removed and recharging in another room, she said, can you recharge yourself by getting a good night’s sleep.
For many years, concerns about cell phones have mostly concentrated on exposure to radiation from excessive use. These connections remain unproven, but last year the California Department of Public Health issued a warning about exposure along with guidelines for users. Hands-free or speaker phone usage is safest, according to the guidelines, and keeping your phone away from your body is best, preferably in a purse or briefcase instead of a pocket. Keeping it away from your bed at night is also recommended.
The jury is still out as to whether these devices can cause cancer, sleep deprivation, or a lower sperm count, but there is no doubt that texting or using a cell phone while driving a vehicle can be fatal. Governments first realized a few years ago the hazards that cell phones present when used by drivers. Now “distracted driving” legislation is in place across Canada, in 16 U.S. states, and in all states for novice drivers. Text messaging by drivers is banned virtually everywhere. This is because using your phone while driving increases the risk of having an accident three-fold.
The cell phone debate now involves workplaces, and the most famous one, the White House, has banned the use of personal cell phones in the West Wing. Of course, this was designed to deter leaks to the press, which obviously failed because news of the ban itself was leaked. Even so, many other employers are imposing restrictions due to cell-related productivity declines. A survey of more than 2,000 employers showed that a majority blame the phone for major problems. “One in 5 employers (19 percent) think workers are productive less than five hours a day. When looking for a culprit, more than half of employers (55 percent) say that workers’ mobile phones/texting are to blame,” concluded the survey.
Some businesses have replaced smartphones with basic handsets if instant communication is needed on the job. Increasingly, cell phones, and even smart watches or laptops, are frowned upon or prohibited in meetings. Some companies ask attendees to leave their phones turned off and in a basket during meetings.
Cell phones’ long-term effects on society are profound. Phones are killing conversation, and face-to-face relationships are becoming less prevalent in families and workplaces. The phone has become another utensil at mealtimes. The result is that essential social communication skills are disappearing before our eyes.
The French are also leading the charge against phones beyond schools. There is a movement among restaurants to ban mobile phone usage at the table. One establishment has a two-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. “People accept having to turn their phones off when they go to the cinema or the theatre so why not restaurants?” explained the proprietor to a newspaper. By contrast, a restaurant in Los Angeles even offered patrons a 5 percent discount if they left their phone at the door, but closed its doors three years later.
Maybe it was the food. Or maybe it is already too late to separate human beings from their addiction to screens.