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The joy of texts has seduced smartphone users into giving up their time

Smartphones and other mobile computing devices are always on, tethering users to work commitments even when at home.

A common complaint today is that people are stretched for time. A recent report found at least a quarter of Australian workers are badly affected by "work-life interference". Some 70 per cent of full-time female workers reported being "rushed and pressed for time". The same report found 72 per cent of men working long hours would prefer to work at least half a day less.

One of the reasons for this time stress is that the structure of the day has changed. Once upon a time, people worked from 9 to 5, for five days a week. The union movement, over many decades of struggle, won working conditions measured in time: the 35-hour week, guaranteed annual holidays and other forms of leave.

But the old work/leisure divide has dissolved in the age of the internet and digital devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. A smartphone is always on, and does not respect the difference between work time and leisure time, or between workplace and home. People feel obliged to answer emails or texts in their leisure hours, meaning they are working at home. The old 35-hour week has been left far behind, as 28 per cent of surveyed men reported working 48 hours or more. Many work well over 50 hours per week, via their laptops or smartphones.

Mobile networking has restructured the work-leisure division, and employers reap the benefits as employees work longer and longer hours. But of course, work is only one activity conducted on digital devices. Social media conducts an endless array of messages, images, links, updates, news, gossip, ads and information. A typical smartphone user spends their leisure time (and some work time) navigating between social media sites, user groups, chat rooms, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, eBay, Google, Facebook, videos, music, news sites, e-books, as well as a multitude of text and (for older users) phone messages. The day becomes one long stream of messages and interruptions. A 2013 study found smartphone users check their device on average 110 times per day.

The typical smartphone user feels pressed for time in part due to the sheer volume of messages coursing through their device. Because the smartphone is carried everywhere at all times, there is no escape from the barrage of information – and in many cases, no escape is desired. Users have a compulsion to check for messages and answer any new ones, a compulsion which grips teenagers early in their smartphone use. Some have reported to psychologists that they sleep with their smartphones, to maximise their receptivity to new messages. So indispensable is the smartphone, it has become like a phantom limb to many young users.

Recent studies in neuroscience and psychology have revealed the chemical basis underlying the joy of messaging. Each text message or email sent or received activates the novelty centres in the brain's limbic system, delivering a shot of dopamine as the limbic system's reward for completing a task. Smartphone users experience a craving to connect, as their nervous systems undergo a series of charges from the incessant messaging. This explains why so many text messages are of an inconsequential or trivial nature – "I'll be there in five minutes". The point of the message is not the information it contains, but rather the act of messaging, or connecting, itself. Even the constant interruption of one message by another on the smartphone is received as a form of pleasure, because it fulfils the need to connect.

Many smartphone users, however, have professed being overwhelmed by this glut of messaging. Even teenaged users have reported feelings of anxiety at the pressure to keep up with the incessant stimuli emanating from their phones. Some users have taken the radical step of a "digital fast" – a complete withdrawal from networked communication. This means no smartphones or laptops for a period such as a week, to "cleanse" the self of dependence on messaging and apps. The digital fast, however, functions in the manner of bodily cleanses: it is a short-term deprivation, usually with short-term benefits. The user is soon back to the old habits.

Other users adopt the less drastic course of replacing their smartphones with "dumb" or old-fashioned phones. This has the effect of massively reducing the volume of incoming messages. One phone user who undertook this course of action last year reported great relief at the relative serenity of his new life. His previous need to check smartphone messages had come to seem like an addiction; using the humble dumb phone now meant a life free of distractions. These attempted remedies to the contemporary time-poor condition go to the heart of the matter: they are attempts to reclaim time from the networked machines that we ourselves have built. 

John Potts is Professor of Media at Macquarie University.  


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