OPINION3 August 2015

Smartphones: the digital drug we’re all addicted to


The breadth of roles smartphones now play in our lives means we’re highly dependent on them, yet research shows there’s also a fear of how we are managing the associated ‘information overload’ explains Michael Brown.


We’re afraid they’re making us stupid. We sleep with them at night. We have a compulsive urge to stare at them hundreds of times a day. If you’re reading this on the Tube, probably everyone around you is using one. The defining image of the 21st century could be the smartphone. They are our constant companions. But how do we feel about them and what are they doing to us?  

UM London publishes a yearly research book called the Little Book of Curiosity of new consumer trends. This year, we’ve focused on the impact of mass-adoption of smartphones.

To steer our research, we hosted a summit of some of the industry’s biggest thinkers in the area including, Metro’s head of insight, Charlotte Pilgrim, and UCL consumer psychologist, Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos. The findings from this panel gave rise to a large-scale quantitative study, in which we engaged 1,500 smartphone users (representative of the UK).

At the highest level, we found that the smartphone is not really a phone at all. Instead, it is better described as an enabler of different tasks and life transactions: from communicating, to buying groceries, navigation, researching decisions, killing time and even finding romance.

We use our smartphones in different ways: 25- to 34-year-olds in London are twice as likely (compared with the UK as a whole) to use dating apps and for example LGBT consumers are twice as likely to use Spotify Mobile.

At root, there is a new intimacy between us and our phones. The one-to-one nature of contact puts smartphones at the core our life. A third of us believe it’s the most important item we own. At a psychological level, we’re seeing changes, too. We’re seeing some signs of compulsive and even addictive behaviours toward the device, with 45% of users saying they feel anxious if they ever leave their smartphone at home.

Despite this burgeoning love affair, many of us have doubts about how healthy it all is. Seven in 10 of us are concerned that smartphones are interrupting real-life conversations; six in 10 regret how much they’re distracting us from the real world; and six in 10 are worried about them permanently damaging the English language (no doubt through txt speak and emoji use).

Strikingly, half of us believe they’re making us more stupid, with one in three concerned about them giving us ‘information overload’.

These findings point to real worries around smartphones, with implications of a societal and behavioural nature. It’s one that brands should be aware of: amid our insatiable appetite for digital information, there’s also a latent and strong appreciation for what is ‘real’.

By Michael Brown, senior insight manager at UM London