INVESTIGATION: Are smartphones making a generation unhappy?

23 Aug 2017
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Smartphones have become a way of life that we simply cannot do without. But, there is more to it than being a device to get in touch with your friends and family on-the-go. Addiction is a real, serious problem—right here in Oman, too. Alvin Thomas gets connected to experts and several victims to check out if the alarm bells are really going off.

It was renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein who wrote –in a letter to his friend and psychiatrist Otto Juliusburger –these words: “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanisation and depersonalisation of our lives–a disastrous byproduct of science and technology.

While Einstein’s words may have stemmed from speculation and doubt, his words were proven veracious once again, when 14-year-old Justin –a self-proclaimed “techie” –received a suspension from his school, in Oman, over his addiction to his smartphone.

It all began in March 2014 when young Justin first received a smartphone –a Samsung Galaxy S5 –as a gift from his parents for scoring well in his exams; he was ranked first in grade seven.

“The downward spiral,” as per his parents, didn’t take too long after that.

Justin soon became addicted to the smartphone. Games, texting on WhatsApp and watching videos for hours on Facebook, soon became routine.

Subsequently, his grades fell, too. Not only had Justin completely ignored his academics; he also cut his interactions with his family.

“It was upsetting for us that we had spoiled our own son by gifting him a phone,” his mother Bhavya says in a broken tone.

The smartphone, then –a device built to make our lives easier and connected –had “ruined Justin’s life (!)”

Justin is only one among a sea of students –and adults –who are addicted to their smartphones.

To get to grips with the situation, we contact psychiatrists, doctors and life-coaches –most of whom are echoing the same –that smartphones are ‘slowly killing our generation’.

Life-coach and merchant-navy marine, Aaron Mathew Prince, takes a strict stance against the ‘smartphone generation’. He says: “Children and adults are not just getting addicted to their phones but also losing the ability to empathise with human beings.

“We are slowly turning into robots that are ever so reliant on phones. In truth, it’s become like a narcotic drug; the patient will seek out the drug –which is the phone –and use it until it is time to sleep.

“I have come across cases wherein people have got aggressive when denied access to their smartphones or social media.

Aaron’s statement is proven true when Justin’s mother narrates: “We tried confiscating the phone from him and locking it somewhere. But he would often lose his temper and come shouting at us.

“Moreover, he would always find it and sneak it out again.”

There was no stopping the young boy: Justin even began sneaking in the smartphone to his school, often getting caught by his teachers.

“Justin had three warnings to his name. I remember him promising me each time that he wouldn’t take his phone to school.

But in the November of 2014, Justin –who was then in grade 10 –was caught using his phone by his physics lab technician and was soon expelled from the school.

“This was rock bottom for us, and we had to take a stand,” says Justin’s father, Jude.

Following this, Justin was sent to a boarding school (a pre-university level school where the students take up residence when school is in session) in Mysore, India.

The school does not allow mobile phones on the premises. But, Justin’s parents did one better: he was made to leave Oman without his phone.

The results? Two years and three months into his schooling, Justin completed his final high-school exams with a percentile of 95 –among the highest in his school.

While Justin’s story may have a happy ending, such is not the case with that of many others.

Currently, it is believed that a total of 2.32 billion people –of the total 7.5 billion people in the world –use smartphones. That is a smartphone penetration rate of 30.9 per cent.

And as per the latest report from Wireless Smartphone Strategies (WSS) services, the global smartphone user penetration is forecast to grow by 58 per cent, by 2022.

But the worries in Oman are on a whole different level, as Oman was reported –by the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) –to have more mobile subscribers than the actual number of people in the country.

The statistics showed that by the end of 2016, the total number of mobile subscribers stood at 6,866,260 whereas the population of Oman was 4,546,332 in December 2016 (as per the National Centre for Statistics and Information [NCSI]).

The total penetration of mobile phone users in Oman (in 2016) stood at 150.9 per cent (!) and the numbers are only rising.

This has translated to a steady increase in reported cases of ‘addiction’, among many other mental and physical conditions.

But what is smartphone addiction?

According to welfare website,, smartphone addiction is colloquially known as “nomophobia” (the fear of being without a mobile phone), and is often fuelled by an internet overuse problem or internet addiction disorder.

It’s rarely the phone or tablet itself that creates the compulsion, but rather the games, apps, and online worlds it connects the people to.

Dr Atul Raj, a leading visiting psychiatrist to Oman, from India, is among those who condemn the reliance of society on connected devices.

“The use of smartphones and social media has completely destroyed the ability of a person to interact normally in a social sphere,” he says.

“Smartphones have effectively decreased one’s cognitive ability in socialising with other ‘real’ people. This often results in further withdrawing from society and increasing the likelihood of being a shut-in.

Dr Atul says he receives, on average, at least three cases of “socially retracted” patients, daily. Sadly, most of them are children in the age group of 10 to 17, and adults in the age group of 18 to 35.

“The issues can vary. For instance, I had a patient who was on the verge of divorcing his wife after she had completely taken into social media.

“She liked posing on Instagram and Snapchat, and her husband was tired of dealing with her compulsion towards it. This eventually led to them coming for therapy sessions.

He says the girl, aged 26, had completely shut down from her husband and son, after she started gaining followers and fans on her social media profiles.

“Over the course of my practice, I have come across several patients; some with narcotic addictions. But, I must tell you that smartphone addiction is very comparable, but it is more accepted, as everyone has accepted the device as a part and parcel of life.

“Today, if you go to a mall, you can see that many friends and family members sit around the table, fiddling with their phones.

“Where is the love? Where is the respect?” he asks.

To test the doctor’s theory, we head to one of the leading malls in the country.

It doesn’t take us long to realise that he is indeed right.

In order to understand the scale of the problem, we take 20 subjects who are present at the tables around the food court. Of the 20, a staggering eight subjects were using their smartphones during the course of their meal, completely ignoring their partner.

Of these eight subjects, we see that three have at least two devices at the table.

“Our reliance on technology is furthermore slowly impairing our photographic memory,” Dr Atul, then points out.

“One thing we humans can be proud of is our eidetic memory. The capabilities vary from person to person, but of late many people have been complaining that they are not able to memorise like they could before.

“Smartphones are great for capturing the best and most memorable moments in our lives, but it has led to an attention deficit disorder. This is because we’re solely reliant on technology to remember things for us —we stop bothering to remember things by ourselves.

“Memories are digital photos now than internal memories,” he adds, before revealing that he is a victim of this very condition.

This is furthermore echoed by Dr Gordon Pennycook, a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Waterloo. He sheds light on another important topic: our dying logical skills.

The doctor says: “Our over-reliance on the internet has diluted our mental intelligence and abilities to logically solve and determine correct answers on our own.

“This is because we are truly dependent on what the internet is giving us. Rather than reading about things and making conclusions analytically, we assume that the answers we garner from the internet are simply correct,” he adds.

But, that’s not all. Many experts are now saying that excessive smartphone usage can now hamper your physical well-being, too.

Aaron, who deals with numerous patients in the merchant-navy, believes that owing to our mental state, our physical state is deteriorating, too.

“How? The smartphone lets us access our favourite movies, games, and social media apps with just the push of a button,” Aaron says.

“We are able to do whatever we want with our phone. This worsens our already sedentary behaviour, which further contributes to factors such as obesity and the risk of developing other chronic illnesses.

Aaron then explains that excessive use of phones can also disrupt sleeping patterns.

He explains: “Smartphone screens emit a blue light that disrupts our body’s production of melatonin hormones.

“These hormones are the ones responsible for promoting sleep. This in turn can lead to insomnia and other risks.

“Can you imagine the condition of a sleep-deprived driver at the wheel of a car?” he asks.

But, Aaron confesses that he too is a smartphone user, and that it has several benefits.

“We must not simply gloss over the benefits of phones. I do everything on my phone.

“Today, they help people get in touch with each other by facilitating social media applications; it also helps us see people thousands of miles away, with the touch of a button; and furthermore, helps us access the internet on-the-go,” the life-coach points out.

“The key is to use it in moderation,” he advises.

In an interview with Y, Dr Sadian Farloos, the clinical psychologist at the Al Harub Medical Centre, says: “Condemning smartphones as an evil tool isn’t the right way to go about this topic.

“We must begin to understand that we are living in a very sophisticated society. Even I do everything on my phone.

“But I wouldn’t classify it as an addiction. I would say that if a person is having a constant urge to check his or her phone to check if they have a message or to post a photo online, it can be classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

“The smartphone itself isn’t the culprit, here. It’s the internet and the appplications that it helps facilitate you to operate. For example, a wealth of people use apps such as Facebook and Instagram. Of these people, there will only be a handful who are completely hooked to it.

“Of course, I have heard stories where people want to post photos of every occurrence in their lives, or constantly check up on their friends and relatives. That’s a compulsive disorder.

“This can lead to depression and social anxiety,” he points out.

“If a socially able individual goes to a party, and cannot socialise as well as they would virtually, the person will undergo anxiety.

“It’s a serious concern,” he adds.

Speaking to Y over the phone, Justin, who is now preparing to enter medical university, says: “It’s connections to real people –making friends and discussing about the things that matter –that count.

“When I was presented with a phone, I thought that it was the world. Granted, I made a complete hash of my teenage years, too.

“It’s never too late to stop. When I was forced to put aside my life in Oman and go away for better, I thought I wouldn’t last a day.

“But you know what?–I changed.”

Pros and Cons of smartphones

Pro: Always Connected

Smartphones are essentially pocket-sized computers. The biggest difference, however, is their ability to access the internet through the same towers as a regular cell phone. This extends the reach of not only voice, but email and even video, to a much wider area. This can increase productivity and decrease response time for personal and work tasks.

Con: Always Connected

Those “dings” and “beeps” from your smartphone can turn you into Pavlov’s dog. Since the phone is always on, always within reach, many smartphone users find themselves always at the mercy of its notifications, especially when they shouldn’t.

Pro: More Than Phone Calls

A regular phone makes calls. A mobile phone makes calls and receives text messages. A smartphone does even more. With the advent of apps, programmers can build functionality into a phone that goes far beyond merely talking.

Cons: More Than Phone Calls

You can’t efficiently receive updates on your favourite football player through a phone call. You can’t really receive celebrity gossip via text message. You can, however, get all of this and more through smartphone apps. Although smartphones can spur innovation, they more often breed a whole new means of time wasting. Games and apps for virtually every small interest are available, each one vying harder than the last for your attention. As a result, smartphones consume more time with unproductive activities than with productive ones.

Productive ways to take a break from your smartphone

1. Enjoy some outdoor activity

Get out of the house more and re-establish your connection with nature. Go out for a walk or a run. Invite your friends over and play your favourite sport. Or try something new, like mountain biking or camping.

Do all the outdoor activities that you love. This will also encourage your social interactions with your friends and colleagues.

2. Read a book

Instead of reading your favorite novel on your smartphone, head to the library or bookstore and get a physical copy. Nothing beats the relaxing feeling of reading a physical book beside a window with a hot beverage.

3. Get a pen and write

Do you ever miss those moments of writing a letter to your special someone using a pen and paper? Or expressing all your thoughts and sentiments in a diary?

It’s time to bring them back. The old-fashioned way of writing is still the best way to convey your feelings.

4. Spend some time on your hobbies

Do you love to cook, bake, or paint? Whatever you love doing, it’s time to get back to your hobbies and spend some time on yourself.

5. Bond with your pets

There’s a reason why dogs are considered “man’s best friend.” Spending time with your pets is a great way to relieve stress and feel happier.

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