No, we are not all addicted to our phones – just the moral panic about them

The response to the Ofcom report has been one of hyperbolic hysteria. The robots are not taking over just yet. 

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Did you know that your phone has become a living, breathing extension of your right hand? Thanks to the Daily Mail, now you do.

The paper has run the measured frontpage story “ADDICTED TO OUR MOBILES” following a report from Ofcom about our digital usage. The report reveals startling statistics, such as the fact that 78 per cent of adults aren’t using a Nokia brick phone anymore and 87 per cent of the population have actually used the internet. The report also showed that over three-quarters of the population feel lost without the internet - the thing that most quickly gets us our news, is the easiest way to engage regularly with our friends, and prevents us from having to carry an enormous map with us to go somewhere new. And to the Daily Mail’s outrage, apparently, the report also revealed that only a shocking 27 per cent of us now own an MP3 player.

There’s no debate over whether or not some people are addicted to their phones and social media. Some people are. The same goes for the toxicity that online spaces are often riddled with; that many prolific internet users feel the need to take regular digital breaks because of it. Just this week, Facebook and Instagram have announced the roll out of time-tracking features to their apps, allowing users to see how much time they’re spending on the platforms and ultimately curb that time if they see fit. All this, in response to a rising awareness of digital obsession. In no world is anyone trying to argue that internet addiction isn’t real.

However, the hyperbolic hysteria around this report has been staggering. Sure, having the impulse to check your phone every 12 minutes isn’t ideal, nor is spending over two hours a day on Instagram. But the response to the vast majority of these stats has been to try to paint a picture of national internet reliance. Whereas, in reality, most of the change reflected in the Ofcom report is the growth of internet necessity – because of the ease it provides and its widening accessibility.

For example, huge swathes of the working world have had their lives improved by, and now rely on, being online. Whether it’s for messaging colleagues in different offices, communicating with clients faster, or literally just checking news if you are *cough cough* a journalist, the internet has made these tasks far simpler and has created new ways of doing old things much, much faster. Without the internet, these tasks become ones that you have to schedule time for. Now, being plugged in makes these tasks drastically simpler, meaning we increasingly rely on not doing them the analogue way.

And that’s not even touching on how much the internet can help people personally. If you’re living alone in a place hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from friends and family, messaging them via WhatsApp or checking in on Skype is a healthy replacement for having someone parked on the couch next to you. The two hours spent online on mobile (cited in the Ofcom study) could easily be chewed up by checking in on your friend in Liverpool and taking a FaceTime call from your dad.

Internet overusage is a problem for some people, and not being able to put your phone down if you want to is too. But to frame our increasingly digital lifestyle as inherently bad is the nonsense of Black Mirror paranoia and 1980s robot films. Digital addiction is a problem, but using the internet more often does not make our lives inherently worse. And, in many cases, it actively makes it better.  

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.