I really don’t like the idea that my smart phone is smarter than me — that it can do all these things that I can’t either imagine or figure out. It leads me to think that maybe it’s too darn smart for its own good. What happened to phones? Now, I’m reading that being able to carry and use a digital version of your driver’s license on your phone as legitimate ID is about to go mainstream. According to the Washington Post, “more than 20 states have either considered, tested or already launched digital versions of driver’s licenses that live on smartphones.”
For more and more folks, the wallet — long the home of the driver’s license — no longer goes in the back pocket or purse. Today it has an “i” in front of it and is no thicker than an image on a screen. What it can hold now appears endless. As Time magazine recently pointed out, “The sum total of human knowledge now fits in your pocket, and it comes bundled with easy access.” As Kevin Roose, a business reporter and writer-at-large for The New York Times, says in a Times opinion piece titled “How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain, “Right here, in my pocket, is a device that can summon food, cars and millions of other consumer goods to my door. I can talk with everyone I’ve ever met, create and store a photographic record of my entire life, and tap into the entire corpus of human knowledge with a few swipes.”
Smartphones are already repositories for some of our most personal data, and now we’re about to feed them even more with the addition of your driver’s license. Adding digital driver’s licenses to the heap only makes the smartphone even more essential and that has a lot of folks in the public health sector very concerned. And rightly so.
“The little wobble of the emoticon, or the A-flat ding that stimulates the brain’s reward centers — these are designed to maximize people’s desire to stay on their devices,” Dr. Brian Primack, a professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh explains to Time reporter Markham Heid. He further reminds us that there are teams of engineers and designers at work right now whose primary goal is to see what else they can come up with to ensure you stay glued to your device.
“As these digital IDs become more readily available, some are concerned that they could be used for tracking,” says Time. For example, it is feasible that state motor vehicle departments could collect information about every single place you visit. Under some of these proposed new laws, “you’ll even be able to show your phone to Transportation Security Administration agents in an airport security line.” How convenient, but is there a downside that comes with the ease of it?
“No one questions a smartphone’s usefulness when it’s used judiciously,” Heid writes. “But many are now wondering whether the device’s ability to grab and stranglehold our attention with an endless stream of distractions may be causing more harm than good … there’s mounting evidence that smartphones — and the constant access to social media that they provide — may be negatively affecting young people’s mental health, as well as their social and cognitive development.”
While the evidence supporting the negative effects on young people is debated, it is hard to deny that research suggesting our reliance on technology alters the way we think, act and engage with other people is mounting. Emerging is “a growing body of research (that) suggests that spending too much time with mobile devices may shorten our attention spans, exacerbate anxiety and stress and generally erode well-being,” says Time.
“All the recent data we have points toward limited tech being the best for mental health and happiness,” adds Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
“What we do find with technology like smartphones and tablets is that they have the tendency to increase our absent-mindedness, reduce our ability to think and remember, to pay attention to things and regulate emotion,” says Dr. Sharon Horwood a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, in a series of articles exploring our relationship with technology in The Guardian.
“Horwood’s own study into problematic smartphone use, published in 2018 in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, found that 33% of respondents felt anxious if they hadn’t checked messages on their phone for a given period.” It is but one example of how “our reliance on our devices could also be altering our cognitive capacities in subtle but powerful ways,” writes The Guardian. “Our dependence on technology doesn’t just erode our cognitive abilities,” Horwood adds. “The effects also ripple into society, affecting our power to empathize with other people.”
What we know for sure is that technology will continue to grow faster and be even more powerful as the experts trail behind, trying to unravel and understand the full effects of our growing digital dependency. As her parting advice, Horwood leaves us with one important reminder. “The long-term consequences of screen use are what we make them.” We all have the power to choose. Instead of rushing forward with whatever the latest-greatest advances may be, maybe sometimes it’s better for our well-being to ease off the pedal as we move down the digital highway and opt out — for a change.