The penetration of smartphones among the population of the 88 most developed countries is now estimated at 44%, up from 39% last year. It is anticipated that this user base will grow by 58% between 2016 and 2022 reaching a penetration of 59% by the latter date.

In the UK, the figure has just edged past 80%, equivalent to 37 million people, a point defined by some experts as ‘peak smartphone’. In short, the markets for these products globally are saturated or charging towards saturation.

This is but a small part of the story. Smartphones, with their extensive, web-enabled capabilities, are responsible for saturation of a different kind. They are widely recognised as a cause of increasingly compulsive behaviour among their users. For example, Deloitte’s sixth annual Mobile Consumer Survey, sampling 4,000 UK consumers, found that one in three adults (half of 18-24 year olds) claimed to check their phones in the middle of the night. Additionally, a third of smartphone users admitted regularly using their devices while with friends or watching television.

In his interview with Tom Bilyeu on Inside Quest, author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek identified the reliance upon handheld devices/social media as a major factor in explaining the travails of millennials in the workplace. Literally the dopamine hit from responses to posts is highly addictive. And while most people’s social media use is non-problematic, excessive engagement among this younger cohort has, in Sinek’s view, resulted in a diminished ability to form meaningful human relationships and, as a further consequence, to cope with stress at work (a problem that smartphones cannot solve).

Evidence does indicate that addictive social media use is associated with being young, female, single and is related to the presence of elevated narcissistic traits and lower self-esteem.  But, in truth, we’re all affected by this pandemic. The presumption that this phenomenon is confined to 18-34 year olds was rebutted by a Nielsen report released in the US at the beginning of this year. Adults aged 35-49 were actually spending more time per week on social media networks than the younger group.

So, Doctor, how can I tell if I’m an addict? An article, 12 signs that you’re addicted to social media, by Harry Wallop in The Telegraph on 19th May offers some guidance. Here are some of his telltale indicators:

  • You can’t get beyond the main course in a restaurant before you get out your phone and post an image of your meal
  • The very first thing you do when you wake up is reach for your phone
  • Your children catch you trying to post Facebook updates while reading their bedtime stories
  • You greet friends at a party by their Twitter handle
  • A colleague asks about your weekend. Your first reaction is “What? Did you not see all the photos I posted on Instagram?”
  • You ‘like’ your own updates on Facebook, you ‘favourite’ your own tweets
  • You ‘check in’ at tube/bus stations on the way to work, in the sandwich shop at lunchtime, in the pub after work
  • Someone tells you a joke and instead of laughing out loud, you utter ‘lol’
  • You use the phrase ‘hashtag’ in normal conversations

Ring any bells? Fear not. This is the summer that we break free. And when better to start than during the imminent one or two week battle against mosquitos and prickly heat.

For inspiration, I give you Donna Freitas, author of The Happiness Effect, who presented a short essay on Radio 4’s Today programme on 13th July championing the importance of disconnectivity, the state of being separated from a mobile device, unplugged from the internet.

In researching her book, she uncovered the love/hate relationship which American college students have with their devices, how they anthropomorphise them but also feel enslaved by them, and the lengths to which they have to go to find sanctuary where they can focus, read, think, talk to each other without distraction. These coping “manoeuvres” included handing phones to a friend, leaving chargers at home, even having parents take their phones away.

Donna’s conclusion was that we all need to help each other by intentionally creating public spaces, including places of recreation, where there simply is no access to social media, forming “oases in our lives where the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach.”  Interestingly, it’s the digital natives who are taking the lead here. An Intel Security survey from June 2016 reported that 49% of millennials in the US were willing to unplug on vacation. Only 37% of respondents aged 40-50 were up for this.

Take advice from people who get it. You have permission to disconnect.

Enjoy your holidays.