Opinions, Column

Phone Usage: A Gateway to Mindlessness?

Around a year and a half ago, as I scrolled through TikTok, I came across a video saying, “Name the last three videos you watched. Go.” I was stumped. I could barely even remember the last one I had watched. I decided then that I would delete TikTok.

Since deleting TikTok, my phone usage has improved. My screen time has dropped from around seven hours a day down to four, and I feel less glued to my phone overall. Other than being out of the loop on a few jokes and trends, I don’t feel as though I am missing much without the app. But, I still find myself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or X, often at times when I know I should be doing something else. 

My roommates and I recently debated this plight of mindless scrolling and the seemingly widespread overuse of smartphones, and my friend played devil’s advocate. He pointed out that if smartphones streamline everyday tasks and people enjoy consuming content on them, why do we need to demonize them?

It’s a fair point. While it is easy to demonize the mindless scrolling that smartphones often enable, they have a wide variety of positive effects on society. Phones make contact with family and friends extremely easy. They increase connectivity between different parts of the world through social media, and they have made everyday tasks from navigation to research exponentially more efficient. They also provide limitless entertainment through easily accessible music, shows, movies, and more. 

We also regularly use phones like a “second brain” to deal with tasks that we don’t need to waste mental energy on. Notes apps are an excellent tool for recording anything you can think of, and they are much easier to organize than a physical notebook. Calendar apps keep track of where you need to be and what you need to do. Cloud storage lets you hold vast amounts of photos, videos, and documents in the palm of your hand. These are just a few examples, but the possibilities for streamlining and organizing your life are endless.

Phone usage has its benefits, sure—but are we using them too much? If you were to bring a time traveler from just 20 years ago to walk through campus today, it would look to them like something out of a futuristic sci-fi film. Walking through the Plex, they would see almost everyone on their phone between sets or while walking on the treadmill. Strolling through the Quad, they would see people texting or scrolling while trekking to class. Visiting the library, they would spot people with their computers open while scrolling through their phones. 

Humans have implemented phones into almost every task of our waking day. We have become so attached to our phones that we feel they are extensions of ourselves. Don’t believe me? Turn your phone off and put it away somewhere. See how long it is until you have an impulse to pick it up.

Phone usage itself isn’t inherently problematic—but it can be a portal to addiction. 

Almost everyone with phones has social media apps. The people that design these apps have utilized advanced predictive algorithms to farm dopamine from our brains. Over the last few years, social media companies have crafted shorter and shorter content to fight for our limited attention. Apps like Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify have released updates of their apps to try to mimic the success of TikTok’s short video model, inventing Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and Spotify Clips

The issue with such short content is that it is anti-mindful. Mindfulness is defined as, “The quality or state of being aware of something.” This means directing your full attention to what you are doing in the present moment. Now that we have phones and an internet connection, how often do we just sit and eat a meal attentively without scrolling through one of these apps? 

While it may be entertaining to watch content and multitask, our phone makes us increasingly comfortable with splitting our attention. From walking to eating to brushing our teeth, our phones have wormed their way into every small activity to the point where we cannot be fully present throughout an entire day. 

And the less comfortable we are with doing small tasks mindfully, the more likely it is that this lack of mindfulness will transform into larger mental health issues.

In a society that is facing an ongoing mental health crisis, we are moving in a more mindless direction—and the way we use our phones is partially to blame. We need to reverse course toward more mindful behavior. To do this, we should be more intentional with our phone usage, using them as the powerful tools they have the potential to be while avoiding the pits of mindlessness they lure us into.

November 13, 2023