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Smartphone Nation

Technology Innovation

— C.J. Burton

Think of the smartphone as a pocket-size game of chance. “Like a slot machine, whenever you pull a lever, you don’t know whether you’re going to get rewarded,” says Patricia Wallace, author of The Psychology of the Internet. In other words, when you hear the iPhone ding, you wonder: Pictures of your brand-new grandchild? A text from the office? Or yet another ad for cheap Viagra? Only one way to know—scroll and look. Sometimes you’re rewarded. More likely, you’re disappointed. Increasingly, there’s the risk that you’re overindulging.

If you love your smartphone, you’re far from alone. Half of all boomers sleep with their cellphone within arm’s length. Two of three people ages 50 to 64 use a cellphone to take photos, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center report. More than half use cellphones to send and receive text messages, and a fifth use them for games, reading e-mail or accessing the Internet. Six of ten people over 65 have cellphones. More than half of them use cellphones for photos. “They’re quickly discovering that this whole social media thing is cool and exciting,” Aaron Smith, research specialist at Pew, told the AARP Bulletin.

This smartphone explosion was sparked in part by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when people became fearful of not being aware of what was going on or unable to connect with loved ones. But usage surged with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which turned handhelds from simple communication devices into entertainment centers. In 2007, according to Pew, 11 percent of Americans said they had used a phone to access the Internet. That grew to 25 percent in 2009, and to 38 percent in May of this year.

Texting is especially popular across the generations. Among cellphone owners, 95 percent of those between 18 and 29, nearly 60 percent of those between 50 and 64, and 19 percent of those 65 and over send and receive text messages, according to the Pew study. “This is a habit that many people my age have picked up from their kids,” says Nancy Berk, 51, a clinical psychologist who uses texting and Facebook to keep up with her kids. “Usually, they’re getting their bad habits from us.”

There are other motivations. “I love my BlackBerry,” says Maryellen Nugent-Lee, 55, of New York. “It keeps me entertained and connected. I can check all my e-mails, text and get back to people immediately. It makes me a better me.”

But many psychologists chafe at such explanations. Chief among their many concerns: Do smartphones rob us of real relationships? Have they eliminated our ability to experience the reality of the moment? Have we forgotten the pleasure of being idle? And are the new phones the ultimate mask for our insecurities?

Can followers be friends? Thanks to her WineTwits group on Twitter—which she accesses on her BlackBerry—Nugent-Lee found out about an interactive wine-tasting event.

“You used your BlackBerry to tweet about each of the different wines,” she says. “Someone would say, ‘Don’t miss this one,’ and then you’d tweet about that. It was so much fun.”

But did it earn her any new friends? No.

Psychologists fear that people are spending enormous amounts of time cultivating virtual relationships at the expense of getting to know the flesh-and-bone folks standing right in front of them. “You really have to force yourself to look at things like Facebook as bonus activities and not neglect the people that support you and would be there for you if you needed help,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, chair of the Department of Psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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