Recent research shows that there are excellent reasons why you should abandon the camera phone that have nothing to do with how good the pictures are. There’s a darker side to camera phones that we ignore at our peril.
Smartphones are brilliant devices; they do an array of things that would have been unheard of when I was a child. Besides being able to take photographs and instantly share them with the world, they can navigate us to a specific location, can help you identify where to stand to see the sunrise behind a particular landmark, help you with the exposure settings when you attach your ND filter, and act as a tracking device so your family knows where you are. There is a better than 90% chance that you are reading this article using your phone.
If you’ve arrived at this website, photography is probably a big part of your life. There’s a good chance you will take your camera wherever you go. If you don’t, you probably grab your iPhone or Android device and snap away with its camera.
I’ve always been a proponent of photography being good for our mental health. It gets us outdoors, we socialize, we move and exercise, and we exclude other thoughts from our heads by concentrating on what we are doing. Photography is a mindful exercise and allows you to switch off from the outside world and all its stresses. This isn't necessarily true of camera phones.
Various estimates suggest that, on average, people in the western world use their phones between three and five hours a day. That is a physical problem, as it affects our posture. We also know the blue-white light of the screen can add to sleep deprivation. But there is more to it than that. That amount of screen time can affect our mood and our productivity too. Phones may damage our cognitive abilities, too.
The human brain can only do one thing at a time. There is a myth that people, especially women, can multitask. They cannot. Research has shown that just having the phone in the same room as you can draw your mind away from the task at hand. They are a massive distraction. Consequently, replacing a camera with a cell phone means that the mindfulness benefits of photography are diluted because the phone distracts us from concentrating on the moment.
In 2018, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that by reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day, there was a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and the fear of missing out (FOMO). Those results occurred in just three weeks.
Results: The limited-use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baseline, suggesting the benefit of increased self-monitoring.
Discussion: Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.
Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, and Jordyn Young December 2018
There is no suggestion that we should give up our phones. They are enormously helpful tools. However, research has shown that cutting the time we spend using them has enormous benefits. Reducing phone usage by one hour daily significantly increases mood and cognitive abilities. You don’t even have to be using the phone for it to have a negative effect. It isn’t enough to turn the phone’s notifications off or have it on the other side of the room; for the benefits to be fully effective, it should be out of the room in which you are working.
The University of Texas’ Doctor Adrian Ward in Austin discovered that just the sight of your phone has a powerful impact on your cognition. Those who had the phone on the desk while they carried out tests performed significantly worse than those who had left the phone in a separate room. Doctor Ward suggests that we have a limited cognitive capacity that we can apply to whatever task we have at hand. When we have phones with us, that capacity is reduced; our minds are pulled away by their allure. They have a powerful attraction because they represent everything good in our lives, such as communications with our loved ones, videos we like to watch, music we enjoy, etc. Just resisting the urge to get that short-term good feeling from accessing our phone uses some of our cognitive resources, thus lowering our performance.
Other studies looked at Text Neck Syndrome and muscular-skeletal injuries. There are vastly increased pain levels that directly result from phone usage. One study highlighted the case of a 16-year-old girl who was admitted to a hospital because of a medical history of headaches, dizziness, and acute neck pain. After a host of tests, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the cervical spine was obtained. It showed an “inversion of physiological cervical lordosis and posterior disc protrusion at C4–C5 level.” In plain English, the neck’s natural curve had flattened and squeezed the disk between the vertebrae, causing it to bulge. The girl was spending six hours a day studying, using screens. She was discharged with the instruction to only watch touchscreen devices for up to two hours per day. She was also advised to work sitting in a better position, paying attention to her posture.
Excessive use of the phone has also been shown to reduce respiratory function.
If you are a landscape photographer like me, you should weigh the risks of not carrying a phone. If I am shooting from the pier, frequented by dog walkers from very early in the morning until late at night, I will leave it at home. However, when I am heading out during the early hours to catch the sunrise on a deserted, rocky beach, then I will have the phone with me. Even then, it will be switched to silent and hidden in a pocket.
However, it is now recognized that rewarding ourselves with a little treat helps give us self-control. That treat could be a surprise gift or watching a funny video. Giving more to yourself means you can ask more of yourself, too. We can feel burned out, depleted, and even resentful if we are not rewarded. So, getting the endorphin hit from using the cell phone is good, right? Maybe. However, research has also shown that the mental health benefits of rewarding yourself are far greater if you have worked for that reward first. You will get far more joy over an extended period from buying that new lens if you work for it first.
Similarly, the good feeling you get from that cappuccino will be bigger and longer lasting if you have it after a brisk walk. Likewise, spending time using your phone to share and like photos on Instagram will boost your mood more after you have worked for that reward. Have you ever caught yourself scrolling through countless meaningless videos on Instagram, and the next thing you notice is that night has fallen, and that valuable time you will never get back has disappeared? Cell phones are time vampires.
Smartphones can be a force for good. The cameras in them are getting better all the time. I have seen magnificent images shot using phones. Furthermore, the functions built into them can and have improved our lives. But they can also be a like a drug, giving us a short-term reward at the cost of long-term mental, social, and physical harm. People who have reduced their phone usage by one or two hours a day found they had increased productivity, higher mood, improved cognitive abilities, and more social interactions. Humans have been around and excelled as a species for 300,000 years without smartphones, so maybe it’s time to put them away and get out our cameras instead.