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Smartphone Nation

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.

Smartphones bring multitasking to a whole new level—and to whole new arenas. “People are in some moment but they are not in the moment,” says New York psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld. “Etiquette has somewhat been thrown out the window.”

Michael Sick, 56, of San Diego, admits to texting while talking. But his job requires him to be in constant contact with clients, and thanks to the iPhone, he’s not tied to a desk. He says he can be out and about, and if he has to take a second to respond to something, he can jump right back into the conversation once he’s done. Plus, it’s the only way he’d ever know what his kids were up to.

“I’ve got four kids. If I send them a text, they’ll respond 10 times quicker than they’ll respond to a voice mail,” Sick says. Another benefit: He can also log on to Facebook to see what his kids are doing through their posts.

For older adults like Sick, connection is often a job requirement. “Older people are trying to stay in the workforce longer, so I think smartphones create a feeling of security that they are not falling behind with technology,” says psychiatrist Scott Bea of the Cleveland Clinic.

Sneaking work into idle minutes can aid productivity, says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Minutes: You Have More Time Than You Think. “But smartphones are a time suck if they distract you from projects that are actually far more important to you, like finishing a work project or even spending some quiet time thinking,” she says. “They’re good if you use them to send a quick note to your grandkids while waiting in line or look up ingredients in a recipe while running errands.”

But if you’re not paying attention to cars whizzing by, or are updating your Facebook status rather than paying attention to your conversation, you’re definitely not living in the moment. And that bothers psychologists.

Says Golden Gate University’s Yarrow, “You have to live a good part of your life fully engaged with your surroundings, and most particularly with other people, in order to feel the most alive.”

Smartphones can also mask insecurity about being alone. “People use their iPhone like a binky,” says Yarrow. “It’s like, ‘Nobody is paying attention to me, I can always interact with this thing.’ ” The downside of that, she says, is becoming less able to relate to people.

So the next time you’re sitting alone in a dentist’s office or waiting for a friend at a restaurant, don’t dive into the virtual world. Take in the surroundings. Engage the waiter in small talk. Breathe deeply.

“Connections are the fuel of life, the core component of happiness,” Yarrow says. “We need to be connected to other people, even if it’s just looking at the person that’s ringing up your groceries while she’s doing it, instead of staring at your iPhone. That’s meaningful.”

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families from New York.