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Bad dates and boring lives – do smartphones offer the ultimate escape?

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

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A new study has suggested a possible reason why people are increasingly turning to smartphones rather than engaging with life around them.

ECU technology expert Associate Professor Nicola Johnson from the School of Education believes smartphones offer users a way to disengage from unpleasant or awkward situations and wrestle back control in their dull lives.

“It’s now a common sight for people to pull out their smartphones when waiting for an appointment or during the commute to work,” Professor Johnson said.

“This is very similar behaviour to reading a book or newspaper, which was a common way to pass the time pre-Internet.

“Smartphones are personalised one-stop shops for entertainment and communication which transcends this behaviour to an experience where users can completely detach from their surroundings.”

Dodging awkward moments

Professor Johnson said the smartphones offered users the ultimate escape from situations that were awkward, frustrating or beyond their control.

“People may not be able to get up and leave a boring meeting or a bad date, but they can moderate their sense of frustration by immersing themselves in a more pleasant environment through their smartphone,” she said.

“This goes beyond the idea of ‘phubbing’ – ignoring someone by checking your phone – instead this is about users removing their attention from their surroundings and immersing themselves in their personal digital environment.”

Regaining control

Professor Johnson said the use of smartphones to escape everyday life was not generally considered problematic.

“Smartphones enable people to gain some autonomy in situations where they have very little control,” she said.

“In fact users feel their time is more usefully and enjoyably spent, and that digital devices help to project an image of busyness and importance.

“Also contrary to the popular thought that workers are stressed about not being able to switch off, a recent survey indicated the respondents felt smartphones actually reduced the pressure at work by being able to read emails away from the office.

“What we still need to understand is the impact of this new phenomenon, where people are physically present but not aware and engaged in their surroundings.”

This paper was published in Time & Society.

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