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Gotta have: Are smartphones a need or just a want?

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Smartphones are on a trajectory to becoming a need instead of just a want as more Americans are integrating the devices into every aspect of their lives.

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NEWTON, Mass. — Lisa Rinkus may be fighting a losing battle. Her 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, wants an iPhone.

"She was asking every day, 'When can I have an iPhone,’ ” says Rinkus, owner of a public relations firm in the Boston area. "My husband was about to cave and I was horrified."

Everybody Rinkus knows, she says, has given their kids a smartphone.

"But I know a lot of parents who say they wish they never caved in," she says.

The tide seems to be going toward universal adoption. Resistance seems futile. The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported in May that, for the first time, a majority of adult Americans (56 percent) owned smartphones. Of young people ages 18 to 29, 77 percent of those who make less than $30,000 a year still own a smartphone.

Pew also found recently that 63 percent of adult cell owners now use their phones to go online — twice the percentage of 2009.

And among teenagers, almost 78 percent of them own a phone, with almost half of that group owning a smartphone, according to Pew.

But even with the high percentages, Rinkus and others are confronting the question of whether smartphones are wants or needs.

Clash of worlds

Susan Kuhn, a "technology futurist and digital strategist" in Arlington, Va., says fear is behind much of the opposition to smartphones and allowing kids to have them.

"Information technology is evolving faster than anything in human history," Kuhn says. "The key is to not just look at the device, but the role it is playing."

That role includes the different things a child could do with it — such as creating videos, expanding learning, creating websites and content on social networks, or being connected to resources at school.

"Smartphones are going to be very important in the future," she says. Parents should want their children to master the tool and use it well. Kids are going to grow up in a world of instant communication and ubiquity of information, she says.

"We do right by our children when we help them to grow up able to live in the world that is coming for them, the world of the future — not the world that we are comfortable, the world of what we grew up in."

Already connected?

Rinkus, however, thinks kids are connected. "If kids have access to computers, iPods, library computers and school computers," she says, "then why the heck do they need it in their pocket while they are waiting for the bus?"

But smartphones can be used for far more than killing a few idle moments while waiting for a bus. A recent study by Jumio, an online verification and mobile payments company based in Palo Alto, Calif., found that people are using their smartphones just about everywhere and during everything.

People admit using them in movie theaters (35 percent of smartphone owners), during a dinner date (33 percent), at a child's or school function (32 percent), in a place of worship (19 percent), while in the shower (19 percent) and even during, um, intimate times (9 percent). Despite laws and other attempts to stigmatize it, 55 percent admit to using smartphones while driving.

James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, thinks smartphone use like this is a sign of addiction.

Tipping into addiction

"Cell phone use reaches a tipping point when they pass from being something you like to do to something you need to do," says Roberts, who is writing a new book titled "Cellularitis: Sleeping with our cell phones." "People exhibit six symptoms that are classic addiction."

The first sign, he says, is the salience or importance the smartphones have in people's lives. Like the Jumio survey, which found that 72 percent of smartphone users are within five feet of their devices the majority of the time.

Two other signs are that the smartphone is being used for mood regulation and people start using them more and more in their lives.

People also have withdrawal symptoms if they have to stop using their smartphones.

"Kids separated from their cellphones get nervous, tense, anxious and almost have breakdowns just like alcohol, cigarettes or coffee addiction," Roberts says.

Smartphone usage also can cause conflict with others. Roberts says he has had to have students removed from class who couldn't stop using their smartphones for the period.

And people who try to stop using their smartphones often relapse back into their obsessive habits with the phones, he says.

Setting rules

Rinkus says she doesn't want her daughter to be like one of her "addicted" classmates who, when asked a question by her history teacher, answered by saying, "Let me Google it."

"That is so absurd," Rinkus says, "it makes me so crazy."

But Kuhn isn't impressed so much by the addiction claims.

"Addiction?" she says, "Well, then we need to talk about sports maybe. There are all kinds of things people can get 'addicted' to. It is not a thing that is unique to technology. … It is falsely giving up human power by giving up tech."

Kuhn says parents can set limits such as not allowing the smartphone in the kid's bedroom, limiting use to two hours a day, monitoring how it is being used.

Roberts also recommends rules such as he has used with his teenage daughters including turning off the phones at 10 p.m. and having smartphone-free times, like keeping them off during dinner. Author William Powers takes it a step further, suggesting that people take a day away from their smartphones to create more balance between people’s physical and digital lives.

Protecting the future

Rinkus says she wants her daughter, in her free moments, to not turn her head down to a smartphone, but to interact with those around her. Kuhn, however, says kids are connecting to each other, "in a far different way that we did."

But she also says the connecting does not have to be one way or the other, that it can be both.

"Technology is no harder than a lot of other things that have happened in history," Kuhn says, "but we put it on this freak-out pedestal. It sort of demeans us to say that we can be undone by a piece of electronics. No. We are much better than that."

Rinkus, however, isn't backing down and says her daughter is starting to agree with her.

"My job as a parent is to protect my children," she says. "Getting them ready for the future means I need to guide them. I'm protecting my daughter. I think she realizes that."

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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