By Kim Bo-eun, Kim Jung-yoon, Jung Min-ho, Bahk Eun-ji
In public areas it’s increasingly common to see people so engrossed in smartphones that they completely ignore people around them. They interact more with these treasured devices than with colleagues or lovers sitting right in front of them. It seems they simply can’t take their eyes off these portable electronic companions.
In classrooms and offices the situation is similar as students and employees make compulsive use of their smartphones.
Concealing the devices beneath their desks, students chat with friends, post status updates on Facebook, play games and embellish photos.
This is how 15-year-old Park spends her day at school.
“I know I should not be playing games or texting friends on Kakao Talk, but I cannot put my phone aside, because it makes me feel anxious about missing something,” Lee said. “I need to check my phone every minute to see if I have a new message from friends and to check Facebook updates.”
Park’s mother says her daughter always has her head buried in her smartphone; she uses it while walking, in the bathroom and even at the dining table.
She tried to confiscate the phone, but this did not last long, because her daughter became too stressed out.
Another high school student Suh, 18, also confessed that he feels addicted to his smartphone, saying that he desperately wants to free himself from the handset, but can’t.
“Next year, I’ll be a senior at my school, and I will really need to stay away from my phone so I can concentrate on my studies. I need to prepare for the college entrance exam, but I find myself more and more obsessed with my phone when I try to study,” Suh said.
Like Park and Suh, the majority of Korean teenagers admit they feel “addicted” to their mobile handsets, switching them on regardless of time and place.
According to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security and the National Information Society Agency, 11.4 percent of teenagers feel addicted to their phones, followed by those in their 20s at 10.4 percent.
Chun, a 23-year-old college student, says he constantly checks his smartphone for Facebook updates and comments for more than 70 times a day.
He starts his day by checking his phone. He looks at the small screen while waiting for the subway on his way to school. He checks it again during class. During lunch, while Chun eats with his friends, he makes sure he reads the latest updates.
He even takes his phone with him into the bathroom. And the last part of his daily routine is, of course, checking his phone one last time before going to bed. Then, he falls asleep next it.
For him, the act is just a matter of habit.
“It’s not really a matter of how much time I spend on Facebook,” he said. “It’s more about the frequency of how many times I take a look.”
Chun says that checking an app for the social networking site takes less than a minute.
“Sometimes when there are no updates, I close the app in less than five seconds.”
Chun has a history of Internet addiction throughout middle school. Realizing his habit of constantly peering into his smartphone regardless of time and place, he has tried getting rid of the device to no avail.
“I found myself staring again and again at updates on my phone,” said Chun. “I think it’s part of human nature to wish to connect.”
Chun says that he can’t imagine living without his smart gadget.
“Sometimes when my cell phone turns off it’s because the batteries have run out, and I am unable to check Facebook and Kakao Talk, so I get bored and start wondering what types of new posts there might be,” he said.
It’s more than a phone for him.
“My daily life revolves around my smartphone. I depend on it for almost everything; checking the time, contacting my friends, having discussions with classmates about class assignments, and so much more.”
Too smart to resist
Not all addictions require medical treatment. However, they are obviously unhealthy, causing significant distress and destructive consequences to people showing symptoms of addiction, psychologists say.
Some addictions such as to drugs or sex are readily identifiable and have outright dangers associated with them, but recognizing a damaging degree of smartphone use can be harder to pin down, as the devices are associated with activities that appear to be harmless.
Offering a variety functions from texting to games, they have evolved to the point where almost anything is possible on the small screen.
A 21-year-old college student Jung said the convenience factor is what keeps him looking at his phone, saying “I can’t even imagine how I lived without my smartphone a year ago.”
“Apparently, it has made my life convenient since it holds everything I need,” Jung, said touching his phone during the interview. “I can do anything with it such as listen to music, watch movies, play games, and talk to my friends. No wonder it’s called a smartphone.”
Easy accessibility is another factor that drives people to the smartphone addiction. Whenever they feel they need something, their hands automatically reach for their pocket to consult their best friend, entertainer, and troubleshooter: the all-knowing smartphone.
“It is always in my pocket because it is easy to carry around,” Jung said. “I used to be addicted to computer games about five years ago. You know what? I still am. But now, I play the games through a different medium.”
As with other addictions, compulsive smartphone use leads to negative consequences. Medical studies show that all addictions hold dangers no matter what type of behaviors involved.
Can you kick addiction?
Although many people admit they are addicted to smartphones, they don’t take it seriously.
A new study by a team from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business recently suggested that social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, commonly accessible through smartphones, are harder to resist than cigarettes or alcohol.
“It might be because it feels like using a smartphone costs less than cigarettes or alcohol,” said Wilhelm Hofmann, leader of the team which conducted the study.
Easy accessibility is the element that makes it more tempting for smartphone users.
“Desire for social media is more difficult to resist because of their high availability,” said Eo Ki-jun, head of Korea Computer Life Institute. “You can take your phone wherever you go. Access to the internet is so easy and the frequency of access keeps increasing.”
Eo also said that self-awareness is the first and most important step to overcoming the addiction.
For teenagers who usually do not or cannot control themselves, parents need to intervene and help them break bad habits.
Kang Joon-ho, a 17-year-old high school senior, says he decided not to take his smartphone to school after a talk with his mother.
“After spending three hours playing smartphone games, I felt I had to do something to stop. My mom thought so as well, and she suggested I leave my phone at home,” says Kang. “Whenever I see my friends play games, I’m tempted to join them. To beat that temptation, I decided to leave my phone at home.”
However, this doesn’t work for all adults so they need to be aware of their addiction and get help from experts.
The more people are engrossed in their smartphones, the more they will lose opportunities to interact with other people, experts say.
“Smartphones allow people to stay connected without being restricted by the limits of space but the trouble is it can cut off ‘real communication,’” said Song Jae-ryong, a sociology professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “If a person becomes obsessed with the virtual world, he or she is in danger of becoming isolated from relationships in the real world.”
The professor said socialization is a process through which a person comes to gain an understanding of one’s identity by interacting with others.
“The first step is to become aware of your addiction. And then you need to get help from family members to regulate your behavior. The final step is to get counseling, when necessary,” he said.