London - My technology obsessed friend Richard rang my landline this week to make final arrangements for his 49th birthday bash: “Have you still not got a mobile phone yet?” he asked, his voice dripping with disbelief.
No, I explained patiently (once again), I’ve not got a mobile and it’s not a matter of “still” or “yet”.
That isn’t a Luddite’s last stand against progress. I simply find life and work generally far easier without carrying what my 90-something aunt rather quaintly calls a “portable telephone”.
According to conventional wisdom, as a journalist I should be permanently plugged in to all the newest versions of every available communications gadget, sifting all the latest data like a good little information drone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The trouble is, when would I ever find the space or time to stop, digest and reflect on every flashing, beeping, sensational thing that had flooded into my head?
And when would I ever get the chance to relax properly, to allow my body and mind to restore themselves and for my imagination to run — essential for any kind of creative work?
But whenever I try to explain this to anyone, I notice in their eyes a mixture of worry and condescension that says: “Weirdo.”
Now, however, an ally has emerged in Professor Paul Dolan, an expert in psychology at the London School of Economics. He has warned that the everyday stress of using mobile phones may be sending us mad.
He argues we’d all be much more content if we turned off our mobiles and concentrated on friends and family rather than impulsively checking emails and text messages.
Enjoying human company is more rewarding than repeatedly looking at your phone, Professor Dolan told the Hay Festival.
He worries that the popularity of smartphones sees users constantly having their attention diverted from the people around them and towards these devices.
He further warns that unless people change their behaviour, they are putting themselves at risk of mental illness. This can develop, he believes, as a result of the constant nervous stress of checking phones and the distraction of switching their attention from one thing to another.
Professor Dolan isn’t alone in blaming our addiction to smartphones for a range of modern ills.
In fact, just carrying the device around can cause chronic stress. This is amply shown by the rise of a common hallucination called “phantom phone vibration syndrome”.
This, says Jeffrey Janata, director of behavioural medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland, is an illusory sensation that your mobile phone is vibrating in your pocket when, in fact, no one is calling.
The mobile phone may not even be in your pocket. The false sensation is the result of constantly being in a state of anticipation, eternally expecting a call or text message.
There is even something called mobile phone insomnia — sleeplessness caused by the disruption of brainwaves during mobile-phone calls made before you go to bed.
James Horne and colleagues at Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre have found that making mobile phone calls in the evening can dramatically reduce your chances of falling asleep easily.
His research found that when we hold a mobile phone to our heads while making a call, we experience a reduced level of brain waves called delta waves. These can remain inhibited for nearly an hour after the phone is switched off.
Delta brain waves are the most reliable marker of stage-two sleep, which precedes deep sleep. About half of total sleep consists of this stage, explains Horne.
He adds that the arousal effects of late-night calls may be similar to drinking a cup of coffee before bedtime, making people lie awake for twice as long before getting to sleep.
But some of the worst stress effects of mobiles arise through social habit. Despite the phones’ promise of making daily life more convenient, they often make things more difficult.
A study by the silicon-chip company Intel has found that one in five people admit to being wilfully late because they can reschedule dates and meetings at the last minute via mobile, and three-quarters say that mobile-ownership has made them ‘more flexible when meeting friends’ (i.e., they are wilfully late, but lie about it).
Hence my friend Richard’s anxious phone call. He wanted reassurance I was still going to be there for his birthday, rather than crying off at the last minute because a better offer had suddenly come up.
He hadn’t worked out that, without a mobile, I wasn’t going to get a last-minute better offer and then text him with an excuse. I’m just old-fashioned reliable.
I’m hardly a Luddite, though. Richard and I worked together building some of Britain’s very first corporate websites. I well remember the derision we met with from corporate executives in the mid-Nineties as we tried to sell this new ‘internet thingy’ to them. Times do change.
I did once own a mobile. It was back in 1999. All it ever brought me was botheration — a constant deluge of interruption from people calling for information they could have found out for themselves (and would have done so in pre-mobile days), or to tell me things that I didn’t really need to know.
I took the battery out, told the newspaper I then worked for that the phone was broken and said I would inform them when I’d returned to the airwaves. I never did.
Since then, over the years, people have developed varying responses to my mobile-less state. At first, they were condescending — why hadn’t I caught on yet?
More recently, they have become disbelieving — how on earth do I manage?
In the years since I dumped the mobile, the volume of interruption that people experience has become ever greater. It has rapidly colonised all the hours of the day that were once considered personal time, free of stressful work demands.
Sometimes, it can feel as though there is no escape. But there is. It requires a bit of self-discipline. I need to be near my landline during office hours when I’m working from home. Or, at least, I need to be near the landline at the times when colleagues or friends tend to call.
I need to be reliable. No last-minute excuses or disappearances from me. And I need my internet connection to work so that I can access emails when I’m at my desk and read news websites and journals online.
During my mobile- free time, when I am off the electronic radar, I look after my brain, letting it relax, think and recover from life working in the information-overloaded 21st century.
You will find me on my allotment or walking the South Downs, or riding a bike, or meditating, or simply reading a book.
I might even be having a long conversation with a friend in a pub — if they’re not checking their smartphone.
In truth, though, I wouldn’t be entirely averse to having a mobile — but only if we could all use them sensibly and with consideration for others’ mental space and time.
But until we learn to use these toys responsibly, the personal stress and pressure are just too high a price for me to pay.
- Daily Mail