Life Tech Dangerous distraction or invaluable tool? How smartphones have changed the way we live

Dangerous distraction or invaluable tool? How smartphones have changed the way we live

Smartphones are a powerful tool, but we should be mindful of how we use them, experts say. Photo: Getty
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Smartphones have transformed our daily lives, but are they helping or hurting us?

A controversial Michael Leunig cartoon published by Nine newspapers has ignited debate over the role smartphones and social media play in our lives.

University of Melbourne researcher and mother of two Philippa Chandler slammed the cartoon as a “low-blow” in a riposte titled In defence of mothers on phones.

Backlash to the cartoon was swift. Photo: The Age

“Fathers also use their phones while looking after kids. The cartoon targets mothers, which is a low blow considering Australian women still do vastly more childcare and unpaid domestic work than men,” Ms Chandler wrote.

“If Leunig is noticing more mothers on their phones than fathers, that might be because mothers are doing the bulk of the pram-pushing.”

While the cartoon makes a valid point about screen time, it unfairly singles out mothers, psychologist and cyber safety expert Jordan Foster told The New Daily.

“It’s a frustrating cartoon because it’s quite easy to pick on mothers all the time,” Ms Foster said.

Mother shaming at the moment is catastrophically bad.

“Are we all having too much screen time? Yes, probably. But is that specific to mothers? Absolutely not.”

How much screen time is too much?

Most Australians spend between six to 12 hours a day in front of a screen, including work time.

While excessive screen time has the potential to “undermine our wellbeing” it is unhelpful to “oversimplify” the issue, Ms Foster said.

“It’s really what we’re doing on our devices that we should be paying attention to, as opposed to a number in terms of too much screen time,” she said.

“If our screen time is about connecting us to other people and making us feel included, or about helping us learn, or supplementing social relationships, then it’s a positive thing.

“If it is starting to impact our sleep or cut into our socialising time, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

‘An extremely powerful tool’

In little more than a decade, mobile devices have evolved from being a simple tool for phone calls and text messages to a portal to the entire world.

Curtin University Professor Leon Straker has researched the effect smartphones have on our lives.

Smartphones are an “extremely powerful tool and we can do some fantastic things with them”, he said.

However, they can also be used in ways that are “detrimental to our health and wellbeing and that of those around us”.

“As individuals, families and societies we need to think about how we’re using smartphones so we can get the benefits without the harm,” Professor Straker said.

Rather than shunning the technology, we should instead look at ways to minimise the risks associated with it.

For example, evidence shows that allowing yourself to be distracted by a smartphone can pose a serious risk of injury if used when walking, riding or driving.

Screen time is often also sedentary time, which can negatively affect our physical health.

“We need to use the technology to be more physically active,” Professor Straker said.

“Part of the issue is that our use of [such technology] has evolved without us being too aware of the fact that we’re using devices more and more.”

Ultimately though, if smartphones and tablets didn’t serve a useful function “there wouldn’t be a problem with overuse because no one would do it”, Professor Straker said.

“It is easy to get caught up in using them too much … we just need to find a balance.”

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