Hands up, who’s got a smartphone? All 2.71 billion of you. Now keep your hands up if you know a) how it was made, b) how it gets disposed of when you’re on to your next one, and c) what it does to your health and freedom in the meantime.
That probably only five people still have their hand up is by no means an accident; it’s good for business. Because if you had known you probably wouldn’t have got one in the first place. You certainly wouldn’t want to keep the one you have — although, for reasons we’ll get into, it may be too late for you now.
From utterly horrifying to utterly, utterly, disgustingly horrifying, here are 10 things Big Tech would rather keep a secret.
10. Smartphones are designed to fail
Although smartphones could easily last more than three years, most people dispose of them sooner. Why? It’s not, as it should be, for all the reasons here, but because of planned obsolescence. This is a business strategy comprising various techniques to ensure there’s always demand for new phones.
These techniques include high repair costs (e.g. for screens) versus buying a new device, the scarcity of genuine parts, short warranties, and clever marketing. All of these approaches are coercive more than anything. But planned obsolescence more specifically refers to failures built into the software or hardware of your (their) device. Apple, for example, has been accused of deliberately slowing down iPhones with an “update”. They deny it, of course, but have nevertheless agreed to settle with its customers (products) for $25 per device.
9. Your smartphone diminishes your quality of life
There are two ways to use a smartphone — consciously (what researchers call the ‘Aware’ mode) and unconsciously (the ‘Unaware’ mode). Most of us will immediately recognize the difference as that between us using the technology and the technology using us. Unsurprisingly, high levels of smartphone use in the Unaware mode have been linked to diminished quality of life (measured in positive feeling, competence, and functioning).
What’s worrying about this is that smartphones aren’t a habit afflicting just a few, like smoking. It’s total. Hence the concerns for generations raised in a world where smartphones have always existed. ‘Generation Z’, for example, or ‘iGen’, differs starkly from its predecessors, the ‘Millennials’ — more starkly than Millennials from ‘Generation X’ and than any other generation has from its own predecessor.
One key difference is in how they spend their time. Since the release of the iPhone in 2007, teenagers are reportedly spending less time hanging out with friends, dating, having sex, or even sleeping — and more time feeling lonely. Instead of meeting up, teenagers tend to inhabit virtual spaces online — apps and websites. And it’s not making them happy. According to the Monitoring the Future survey, those who spend more time looking at their smartphones, and social media, are far more likely to be unhappy with their lives.
8. Smartphone apps are intentionally addictive
How many times a day do you check your smartphone? In typical addict fashion, even heavy users probably underestimate it; the average for Americans is 262 times per day. What is our fascination with these little black mirrors?
Well the truth is it’s not our fault, or even our choice. Smartphones are addictive by design. According to app developer Peter Mezyk, “the success of an app is often measured by the extent to which it introduces a new habit.” Why? Because attention pays. The more time our focus languishes on social media and other apps, the more ad revenue their creators rake in. Your mind is the product, not the customer. Former employees of Apple, Google, Facebook, and others have placed this beyond any doubt.
In fact, there’s now an industry standard for encouraging addiction. It’s based on a model devised by Stanford psychology professor B.J. Fogg, and works by generating a stimulus around negative emotions such as boredom or loneliness.
7. “Your” smartphone is a surveillance device
Edward Snowden famously risked his life to reveal how closely the US and other governments monitor their citizens. It’s part of the reason why VPNs are, for some of us at least, the new normal. But we still carry the snoops in our pockets. Thanks to virtually untraceable spyware, all governments now have the ability to access our smartphones without our knowledge. And it’s an ability they exploit.
It’s not just America. The Polish government has gathered data from dissenting journalists’ phones for use in smear campaigns against them; the Hungarian government has deployed spyware to monitor NGOs; Greece has used it to cover up corruption; the Spanish have used it to monitor individuals involved with the Catalan independence movement… The list goes on. And it’s hardly surprising.
What is surprising is the ignorance of smartphone surveillance capabilities even among those most at risk. Protestors, for example, continue to carry their personal tracking devices — allowing police to identify and track them with ease.
6. Checking your smartphone ruins your eyesight and skin
Most smartphone users don’t care about their eyesight; either that or they don’t know the risks. According to the Vision Council, 80% of Americans look at their devices for more than two hours per day — and 59% have digital eye strain. Worryingly, this damage to retinal cells can lead to age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, eye cancer, and growths on the whites of the eyes. Making matters worse is people tend to blink less when looking at screens. You’ve probably felt your eyes drying out and the headaches that result.
If you think you’ve got youth on your side, beware: the opposite is true. Children’s eyes actually absorb more blue light, placing them at greater risk of diseases.
But it’s not just the eyes. High levels of artificial light also stress the skin — both indirectly, by upsetting sleep patterns, and directly, by oxidative stress. Studies have revealed that exposure to short-wavelength visible light (such as blue light), even for short periods of time, can generate cell-destabilizing molecules (reactive oxygen species) and consequently the early death of skin cells. The result is accelerated aging and wrinkles. But there is a silver lining: Given the concurrent damage to your eyesight, it may be less visible in selfies.
5. Smartphones cause debilitating mental illness
The most obvious and widespread mental harm associated with smartphone use is the stress of being constantly networked. Users feel compelled to respond to every message they get, when they get it, so as to maintain this connection. Studies show us what we already feel numerous times each day: that notifications activate the sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline that in turn increases the heart rate and muscle tension. It takes 30 minutes for the body to stabilize again, and this is 30 minutes many of us never get.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other chronic problems include sleep disruption, cyberbullying, emotional dysregulation, depression, anxiety, impaired cognitive function, low self-esteem and social avoidance.
We don’t need studies to tell us these things, but surveys of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders between 1991 and 2016 show that adolescents spending less time on electronic communication were happier.
4. Smartphones are physically hurting you
We’ve already mentioned how blue light can be damaging to the eyes and skin. It gets worse. By disrupting your circadian rhythm and diminishing sleep quality, it can also contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The manual labvor involved in using a smartphone (unnatural repetitive hand and neck movements) could also lead to trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis and neck strain. In fact, the force of strain on the neck is 40 pounds at a 30-degree tilt and 60 pounds at 60 degrees — the equivalent of having a child sitting on the back of your neck every time you look down at your phone.
But it’s not just the blue light; it’s also the exposure to radiofrequency-modulated electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs). Spending just 50 minutes on a cell phone call has been found to increase brain glucose metabolism in the region of the brain closest to the antenna. And while it’s not clear what harms this might cause (including to young people’s developing brains), RF-EMF emissions are linked to cancer, and phone use to increased risk of brain tumors. Even on a day-to-day basis, since RF-EMF frequencies sometimes correspond to those in neuronal tissue, it’s feared they could interfere with cognition. Even tiny interferences could have a butterfly effect. It has also been shown that EMFs can penetrate cells and interact with mitochondrial DNA, ultimately destroying through oxidative stress. At the very least, it could lead to electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
And while it’s easy to forget while looking at your smartphone, we still share this world with other creatures — many of whom have been negatively affected by the spike in EMF radiation. There’s heaps of evidence for harms caused to ants, birds, frogs, bees, rodents, plants, and other wildlife. Bees, for example, when exposed to cell phone EMFs for just 10 minutes per day for ten days, don’t return to their hives. This is because they rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.
3. Smartphones are assembled in sweatshops
Workers’ (and human) rights abuses at FOXCONN in China, where Apple and Sony get their phones made, are relatively well known — and entirely unresolved. Workers are still paid less than they need to get by, even on overtime hours (which are often not paid as a punishment for not meeting quotas). They’re also exposed to toxins without protection and lied to and abused by their managers (who, for example, have promised double pay to ramp up production but only paid standard in the end). If they want to resign, they have to ask permission, and permission is often denied. They are, in other words, slaves. So it’s no wonder suicide is common there.
But it’s not just FOXCONN or Apple or Sony. All smartphones rely on cheap labor. Another example is Samsung’s sweatshops in Vietnam, where among the mostly female workforce miscarriages are a routine and expected occurrence. Most of their time, even while pregnant, is spent standing causing dizziness and fainting. The toxic fumes don’t help, or the haphazard mix of day-shifts and nights. Even “free time” is painful, since factory dormitories intentionally keep mothers separate from their families.
2. Children die mining cobalt for batteries
More than half the world’s cobalt supply, which smartphone manufacturers depend on for the batteries, comes from hand-dug mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Euphemistically known as ‘artisanal mines’ (ASM), these places are hell on earth.
The true extent of the horror isn’t clear because most of it gets covered up. But what we do know paints a chilling picture. Tens of thousands of children as young as seven years old, all on less than $2 per day, work up to 12 hours a day carrying heavy loads, breathing toxic dust, and contracting skin diseases underground. Accidents are common, resulting in loss of limbs and life, with many bodies left buried in the rubble.
And while the big brands claim to be against child labor, the truth is they’d be smaller without it. So it’s no surprise that, according to Amnesty, they’re not even investigating suppliers. After all, since few smartphone users in the developed world really care, there’s very little pressure to do so. The problem is now so entrenched that “ethical” smartphone alternatives like Fairphone find it impossible to separate ASM-supplied cobalt from other sources.
1. Smartphones are ravaging the planet
Although your smartphone activity might feel relatively carbon neutral — at least between charges from a power outlet — the data centers required to process all the information involved consume masses of energy. Phone towers too. In the US alone, 4G uses 31 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year, which is enough to power 2.6 million households. 5G is expected to use triple this amount.
Beyond this, there’s the even bigger impact of manufacture and especially mining. Mining (not just for cobalt but for all the materials invovled, including gold and silver) accounts for as much as 95% of your smartphone’s total carbon footprint during its lifetime… which isn’t very long.
Once you’re done with it, it continues to wreak havoc on the planet. Discarded electronics (or ‘e-waste’) reached a mass of 43 million tons in 2016 alone — equivalent to 4,500 Eiffel Towers. But it’s out of sight, out of mind for most Americans. The hellscapes of e-waste dumps are far away in the developing world, in China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, and other countries where regulations are lacking.