This essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Times in April. I wrote and edited the piece entirely on my smartphone.
It has become commonplace to the point of cliché for pundits to explain in worried tones that smartphones can be addictive.
In a recent “60 Minutes” segment, Anderson Cooper interviewed Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, who compared smartphones to slot machines because both have a built-in reward system that we find hard to resist — the thrill of pulling a lever and making money versus pushing a button and getting a notification. Cooper suggested that tech companies, by getting us hooked on mobile apps, are “hijacking” our brains.
This argument seems inarguably correct to those who’ve seen comScore reports suggesting that Americans spend more than 70 hours a month on average using smartphone apps, and that the number is growing each year. But lost in the narrative that we’ve become too “dependent” on smartphones — a word that pops up all the time in addiction punditry — is that not all usage is frivolous, or even strictly voluntary. Like many disabled people, I depend on my phone for survival.
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