So on Saturday, May 8th, when I lost my shiny new iPhone 6, I considered it a blessing in disguise. I saw it as a golden opportunity to turn myself into a guinea pig. I wanted see how my smartphone was really affecting my life, because I had a feeling it was bad. I set my hypothesis based on the sentiment implied in the articles above, which is ultimately the one that matters:
“Without a smartphone, my quality of life will improve.”
To test this hypothesis, I adopted a slightly modified version of the Experience Sampling Method, as found in the book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience. This involves pinging myself at random intervals throughout the day to answer a brief survey, which I coded (painstakingly) into the PIEL Survey App in my iPad. The questions, which I took from a 2003 study called “Happiness In Everyday Life,” were as follows:
- Where are you right now?
- What are you doing right now?
- Right now, are you more happy or sad?
- Right now, are you more sociable or lonely?
- Right now, are you more excited or bored?
- Right now, are you more active or passive?
- Right now, how good do you feel?
- Right now, how much would you say you’re in flow?
I answered this survey 5 times a day for 1 week, with no phone at all. I then repeated the survey the following week with an iPhone handy, to see if there was a difference in my experience. Note: I’m making an assumption here in equating my quality of experience with my quality of life. I would argue that’s a valid assumption, but that’s an entirely different blog post.
Before I get into the results, there are a couple limitations I should acknowledge. First, since I didn’t have a phone (obviously), I could only answer the survey when I was pinged with on my iPad. This means only at work or at home, which is 90% of my day, but doesn’t include activities like working out or driving. I consider this acceptable because smartphone use does not play much of a role in those parts of my life anyways.
Second, since I work a lot, 90% of the results occurred during work. This is partially why I put in the “what are you doing right now” question – to control for this. In the end, there appeared to be no major statistical discrepancies between home and work in this small sample, but it is worth considering.
I also want to add that there were no other major differences in the two weeks – the weather was the same, my lifestyle was the same, even the food I ate was pretty similar. I also tried to ensure that issues of convenience, such as taking work calls, et cetera were mitigated by using tools such as Skype.
After 2 weeks of gathering data, the results came out as follows:
(Graph removed, sadly)
This was not what I was expecting. As you can see above, my overall life experience was more positive when I had a cellphone in every. single. way. The stated hypothesis was easily not proven. My quest for ultimate anecdotal proof that smartphones are hurting our life failed.
So, why was this? Time reflect on the experience and balance the scales:
Things I liked about not having a phone:
- Self-image. In my mind, I relished the idea of being phone-less as it made me some sort of renaissance man. I can’t tell you how many times in that week I modified the hipster adage “I don’t even own a TV” to “I don’t even own a phone.”
- Inaccessibility. If I didn’t want to talk to someone, I didn’t have to. That was pretty great.
- Focus. I definitely read more and had more stretches of uninterrupted productivity.
Things I didn’t like about not having a phone:
- Planning. I was a plastic bag in the wind – I relied almost entirely on my roommates for making plans to do stuff.
- Sociability. The counterbalance of inaccessibility. Sometimes I felt like quickly talking to someone, but couldn’t easily reach them.
- Boredom. Sitting on buses and watching TV became a lot more painful when phone-less.
It’s not a coincidence that I’ve got 3 items on each side of the equation. The truth is, my overall quality of experience without a phone was not much different than with a phone. I did the same activities and felt the same feelings. The differences in the margins, characterized above, aren’t the things that truly affect my life.
Going even further, I believe the reason my hypothesis went not just unproven but actually refuted was my first note: self-image. I thoroughly relished being a “No Smartphone Guy.” But this superficial concept had nothing to do with my actual life experience. Whether or not I liked how it looked to be phone-less had no bearing on how I lived. I think this is the perceptual error many of us who decry smartphone usage make: we like to view ourselves as the type of people who don’t need to rely on technology. By allowing ourselves to feel uneasy about using it, we decouple our self-image from the dreaded smartphone drone. It is pleasant for us to yearn for a simpler time when doing so makes us feel complex. But I think our view of the past here has a rose-coloured tint: were you really happier in 2008?
Since my experiment has ended, I’ve turned off most of my notifications, but otherwise my phone habits are virtually the same. If checking Instagram is going to ruin my life, I’m going to need some better numbers to back it up.