Addiction to Mobile DevicesBy Stewart J. Guss on May 30th, 2020
App addiction, device distraction, phone fatigue, screen slump: no matter what name you give it, our society has a real problem with mobile device dependency.
Over the past few decades, screens have overtaken American life. It might seem impossible to younger readers, but once upon a time we all got along just fine without having a universe of information and connection literally at our fingertips.
We lived in blissful ignorance of what our best friend’s soup looked like before she ate it last Tuesday, of which Strange Trick to Fight Wrinkles Has Doctors Amazed, and of the number of people who “like” how someone’s dog sings along to the opening bars of Law & Order. Somehow, we got by.
Today, screens permeate our existence. There is no doubt that screens have ushered us into a world of convenience and endless opportunities to learn and connect. Mobile devices truly do make life easier.
But every rose has its thorns. As a law firm, we worry about the negative effects mobile devices have on everyone’s day-to-day lives. These past few years have brought more and more injured and grieving clients through our doors. When we look for where to place the blame for their accidents, one culprit appears again and again: mobile devices. Let’s take a moment today to reflect on this deeply worrisome trend. If you or a loved one has suffered severe injuries due to a negligent driver on their phone speak with an experienced Texas car accident lawyer today.
What Makes a Mobile Device So Addictive?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” People with addictions “engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
When we use the word “addiction” in talking about mobile device use, we don’t mean to say that everybody who uses a smartphone fits the medical definition of an addict. However, from our perspective as attorneys for people who get hurt because of someone else’s careless actions, we can say that we worry about how many people seem compulsively drawn to interact with their mobile devices – again and again – in a way that has predictable, harmful consequences.
One way of explaining what’s happening comes from a group of ex-tech bigwigs called the Center for Humane Technology. These folks have made it their mission to educate society about the dangers of the “extractive attention economy”—an entire business and marketing strategy borne of figuring out how to keep the eyes of consumers glued to screens for as long as possible, as often as possible.
According to the Center for Human Technology, designers of the apps we use on phones and tablets purposefully engineer them to make them addictive. They deliberately try to trigger some of our deepest human instincts.
Some of the tricks and tactics these designers use include:
- Variable rewards. Mystery is alluring. Your brain likes the uncertainty and excitement of not knowing what you might see when you pull down to refresh a news feed, or to find out how many likes you got for your Instagram post. Sometimes you get something new, sometimes you don’t. Our brains experience the reward of that unexpected outcome in the same way they experience the thrill of pulling the lever on a slot machine, hoping for a big win.
- Infinite scroll. This makes it possible to keep going, and going, and going… Always finding new content to occupy your attention, never coming to an end. Ever lose 45 minutes thumbing through your Facebook news feed without even sensing the time passing? Yeah, us too. We have infinite scroll to thank for that.
- Pushing extremes. Algorithms push content at us that is calculated to hold our attention. One way to do that is to evoke strong emotions and powerful physiological reactions. Put simply, algorithms take advantage of the same impulses that drive humans to stare at car wrecks. The algorithms tap that impulse showing users videos and posts that carry a similar psychological punch… for better or worse.
When a family dining at a restaurant is staring into glowing screens and blocking out the outside world, they’re also blocking out each other… The Humane Technology team may be on to something.
How Mobile Device Addiction Affects Our Clients
Here are just some of the ways we’ve seen mobile devices affect our clients’ lives and the lives of others in the communities our firm serves.
This one has all of us in the legal community—personal injury lawyers, defense lawyers, and judges alike—shaking our heads. Let’s be straightforward: Using a smartphone while driving is OUTRAGEOUSLY dangerous. Don’t do it.
People die every day on U.S. roads because someone just can’t wait to send a text or check a social media post. It’s almost as if they’re addicted to checking their phones, even if doing so risks catastrophic injury and death.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re an exception to the rule. No one can manage driving and texting at the same time. Research has shown that those two tasks—driving and typing out a text—occupy two regions of the human brain that do not play well together. Activate one and you shut down the other. This means that typing out a text behind the wheel is no safer than taking your hands off the wheel and closing your eyes for the same amount of time. Guess what happens then?
Crashes. Injuries. Death.
So why do people keep thinking they can do the impossible and fire off a clever WhatsApp message at 65 miles per hour, or that it is safe to check to see if their friends liked a new profile pic? In part, it’s because mobile devices and the content on them have conditioned us to respond like so many hungry dogs to the “ping!” of a new message or newsfeed item. That’s scary stuff.
It’s not just drivers who make the fatal mistake of paying more attention to their phones than the road. Pedestrians staring at phones have gotten themselves killed by blindly walking into traffic. Cyclists using phones have ridden off the road. This is a universal problem.
This brings us to another danger. Over and over again, our mobile device addiction keeps leading to seemingly inexplicable accidents involving falls. In the past we might have called these freak accidents, but nowadays they happen too often to give them that label. We’re talking about people falling from cliffs while trying to take a selfie, strolling into traffic while staring at a phone, tumbling down stairs, or ignoring dangers on a construction site. When your eyes are on your phone, you’re vulnerable. You’re unaware. You’re not paying attention to your surroundings. This can cost you.
When you’re glued to your phone in public, you put yourself at risk. Someone could take advantage of you. In Los Angeles, where our firm does a lot of work, purse snatchers have figured out that people staring at their phones make easy marks. If you’re lucky, the wrongdoer who targets you might just want to pick your pocket… but you might also fall prey to someone who has more malicious and violent intentions. It seems unthinkable, but nowadays people trade their personal safety for a peek at a mobile device every minute.
Health and Wellbeing
All of that mobile device usage also comes at a physical and psychological cost. A smartphone addict might manage to avoid crashing a car, falling down a flight of stairs, or getting victimized by a hoodlum, but they might still suffer terribly from staring at a screen for hours on end. How?
As technology permeates our lives more and more, it might take a while to perceive the full scope of its problematic effects. But already, researchers have noted evidence of all kinds of physical and psychological ailments related to screen overuse, including neck pain, vision problems, insomnia, and a host of mental health disorders including anxiety and depression. These are especially rampant among teens and young adults. Some even worry about potential cancer-causing effects of long-term contact with and use of mobile devices.
The potential for physical and emotional harm associated with using mobile devices seems like one of those issues that could burst and prompt a wave of litigation, much the same way the dangers of smoking did late last century.
How We Can Help
In the practice of personal injury law, we spend our days focusing on getting people compensation in the aftermath of preventable accidents that leave them badly injured, or worse. If we can help solve any society-wide problem relating to mobile phones, perhaps we will do so by making addictive use of mobile devices so costly—to insurance companies, to device and app designers, and even to users themselves—that they will collectively have to recalibrate their behavior.
In the meantime, here’s how we focus our attention on mobile device use in our day-to-day practice.
- In motor vehicle accident cases, lawyers regularly try to figure out if one of the drivers involved was using a device in the moments leading up to the crash. Evidence of someone sending a text or refreshing a social media feed—which exists if you know where and how to look for it—can go a long way in proving that the driver acted carelessly and should therefore have a legal liability for damages.
- In premises liability accidents cases (those involving property owners who fail to take steps to keep their premises safe for visitors), lawyers look to the defendant property owner’s social media feeds for evidence the owner knew in advance about a dangerous property condition, or posted about the incident that harmed our client.
- In construction accident cases, we try to find out if a job site supervisor or co-worker failed to follow safety protocols as a result of getting distracted by a mobile device.
All together, in our day-to-day work as personal injury attorneys for victims of careless, reckless, and intentionally harmful actions, we recognize that the addiction to mobile devices plays an increasingly significant role in how innocent victims end up in harm’s way. That’s the unfortunate reality for many of our clients.
If an accident or incident leaves you badly injured or mourning the senseless loss of a loved one, and you suspect someone’s use of a mobile device could have played a contributing role, you deserve justice. Contact an experienced personal injury attorney today to learn about your rights.