Personal Development

Most Phone Use is a Tragic Loss of Life

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I don’t know if people say this anymore, but it was common in the 1990s to say “smoking one cigarette takes ten minutes off your life.”

It obviously doesn’t work like that exactly, but it may not be total nonsense — this study says the loss of life comes to about eleven minutes, by adding up all known increased health risks and their life-expectancy differences, and dividing by the average number of cigarettes smoked by daily smokers. Smoking X cigarettes shortens a life, on average, by XY minutes. Fair enough.

Most of my friends and family don’t know this, but during my early twenties I smoked daily, and I thought about that 10-minute figure a lot. There were five customary cigarettes in my daily routine while I attended school: the waiting for the bus smoke, the arriving at school smoke, the mid-morning smoke, the after lunch smoke, and the waiting for the bus home smoke. There would be at least one other cigarette every day, which adds up to about an hour of life sacrificed per day to this ritual behavior, according to the formula. That’s about three hours lost per pack, and a day and a half per carton.

Since I wasted at least as much time on bad television and video games, I reasoned that this cost was bad but not unacceptable, especially because I didn’t love smoking enough to believe I’d do it forever. It had some benefits too: I made friends on the various designated smoking pads at work and school, I had a lovely outdoor respite from the loudness of parties and bars, and I ate less because a cigarette punctuates a meal like a dessert could only dream.

Still lighting up

In the end though, my intuition won out — despite any rational justifications, smoking was gross and expensive and obviously very bad for you, and I quit.

About twenty years later — last week — I found myself sitting at my kitchen table, mechanically upvoting and downvoting hot takes on Reddit when I realized I had been aimlessly thumbing my phone for at least twenty minutes. I was vaguely aware that I had not yet done the thing that caused me to reach for my phone in the first place, and could no longer remember what it was.

Even though I get caught up like that all the time, the nihilism of that particular twenty minutes really got to me. It was such a nothing thing to do. I said aloud what I was thinking: “That… was a total loss.”

Basically I had just aged myself by twenty minutes. Two virtual cigarettes, and not even a fading buzz to show for it. I learned nothing, gained nothing, made no friends, impacted the world not at all, did not improve my mood or my capacity to do anything useful. It was marginally enjoyable on some reptile-brain level, sure, but its ultimate result was only to bring me nearer to death. Using my phone like that was pure loss of life — like smoking, except without the benefits.

A thing people do, circa 2023

This is the 1950s of the smartphone era

I wish I could say I don’t sacrifice much of my life in that way, but I do. And much more of it than I ever smoked away. You might describe it as a deadly addiction, if it wasn’t so normal.

This smoking analogy might seem a bit cheeky. It might be, but I can’t see quite what the difference is. Smoking causes horrible cancers, and perhaps frivolous phone use only wastes your time, but I’m not quite sure what the difference is when you average it all out. It’s an irrational, dopaminergic ritual that brings you closer to inevitable sickness, old age, and death. At least it doesn’t smell.

Of course, not everyone uses their phone like I do. I’m sure some people use their phones scrupulously, as a tool and not a toy, such that little of their screen time has no redeeming value. These people are the “non-smokers” of the smartphone-using population, and therefore do not fit into the analogy.

However, it’s still the 1950s when it comes to smartphones. Most of us still smoke with abandon, as though it’s a neutral activity, on the streetcorner, in the library, at our workstations, at our breakfast tables, on the toilet, in bed. Long-term studies demonstrating that this common pleasure is killing us may still be decades away, even if we already kind of know.

Early adopters

The phone/smoking analogy, like all analogies, works in some places and not in others. Wasting time is not quite the same as shortening your life span due to increased disease risk of deadly disease (assuming phones don’t also do that). Smoking also makes your health worse all along the way to your death (although I’d bet phone abuse does too). Either way, I don’t think it’s untrue to say that most smartphone use is a regrettable loss of life for the person doing it.

If the main reason not to smoke is to protect, in aggregate, thousands of our God-given ten-minuteses — which amounts to years — of being alive, we should just as strenuously avoid other vices that incur comparable costs, and should consider the resulting loss of life to be just as tragic.

The Tradeoff

I’m not trying to make a moral appeal, only a practical one. It doesn’t necessarily follow that frivolous phone use is bad or wrong. It’s unwise, and we already know that it’s unwise. But perhaps it is as unwise as smoking. Perhaps indulging the urge to browse Reddit after checking your email is just as reckless and self-destructive as lighting up a Marlboro 100 after breakfast, and will one day be seen with all the same revulsion and taboo.

Only you know how resonant this proposition is for you. If you lose ten, twenty, or thirty minutes to frivolous phone use on a multiple-times-daily basis (I sure do), it might make sense to regard it as belonging to a much higher stratum of concern than we tend to assume. Instead of grouping it with I-probably-shouldn’t-but-who-cares sorts of behaviors, like rewatching barely-worthwhile TV shows or kicking off your shoes without untying them, perhaps it belongs with possibly-catastrophic vices like daily deep-fried lunch, road raging, or smoking.

A thing people do, circa 1948

I don’t know if I’m way off the bullseye here or finally zeroing in on it. Let me know what you think. It presumably depends on how you use your own phone, but also on what you witness others doing around you. Is the smoking comparison unwarranted?

Whether or not you feel this comparison is too glib or reductive, or otherwise doesn’t feel right, each of us will ultimately either confront or avoid the question at the heart of it: given the way that you use your phone, what really is being gained, what really is being lost, and will you be happy having made the exchange?


Photos by Rob Hampson, Steven Lasry, Lewis Hine

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