Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: If you can't stay off the phone when you're driving, you shouldn't be on the roads

It's not children but adults who need to curb their enthusiasm for constant screen-time, says Fionola Meredith

UK adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on screens
UK adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on screens

Driving into Belfast at rush-hour on a dank, sleety January morning is nobody's idea of fun. The Ormeau Road is particularly loathsome: a single lane of endless traffic, mired in its own fumes, creeping slowly towards eternity - or at least that's what it feels like.

If a driver wants to join the main road from a side-street, I usually let him or her in, out of solidarity with a fellow sufferer.

Earlier this week, I saw that a car had pulled out from a side-street and was blocking the bus lane at a right-angle as it tried to join the main flow of traffic on the Ormeau Road. The bonnet of the car was halfway into my lane. I flashed my lights, gesturing to the driver to go ahead in front of me.

No movement.

Flash again. Still nothing.

Now I was close enough to see that the middle-aged driver was sitting at the wheel, head down, staring at her phone.

Yes, this driver was blocking two lanes of rush-hour traffic, on one of the main arterial routes into the city, because she just had to check her phone right at that very moment.

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Was she browsing Amazon? Gossiping on Reddit? Did she need an urgent news update on the Irish backstop?

Who knows. But thousands of vehicles pouring into Belfast would simply have to wait, queued all the way back to Saintfield, while she sat there oblivious, feeding her technology addiction.

The age of the driver is relevant, because we're always being warned to stop our children indulging in excessive screen-time.

There are all sorts of dire predictions about the damage it's doing to their dwindling attention spans and their sleep habits, not to mention to the state of their mental health.

But it's adults who have the real problem, and it's clearly driving some of them to behave in increasingly lunatic and even illegal ways.

According to the Time to Log Off campaign, UK adults spend an average of eight hours 41 minutes a day on screens, while for UK children it's six and a half hours.

A 2016 study estimated we tap, swipe and click on our devices 2,617 times each day. Over two hours per day, on average, is spent on social media, up from one and a half in 2012.

Does that not sound insane?

We're hooked, like stupid gullible fish, bobbing heedlessly on the end of the technology industry's very tempting lines.

No wonder the so-called titans of tech restrict their own children's time spent in front of a screen. They know what it can do to your head - and your life.

Famously, Bill Gates of Microsoft didn't allow his children to own mobile phones until they were 14, which is practically unheard of these days.

Steve Jobs, late of Apple, had similar strictures in place.

But it was ex-Facebook president Sean Parker who really blew it all open when he admitted that the site was knowingly created, right from the outset, to exploit "a vulnerability in human psychology".

Parker described how, in the first days of Facebook, people would tell him that they weren't on social media because they valued their real-life interactions. And he would say, "You will be".

He was right: they flocked in their billions, seduced by the "little dopamine hit" that was deliberately built into the system to keep them coming back for more.

A study found that even just seeing the Facebook logo can cause cravings that are hard to ignore.

I don't do social media - no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram for me. Life's too short. But I know I still spend far longer than I should staring at news websites and the like, because my phone has suddenly, unbidden, decided to inform me how much screen-time I've used every week.

It's not a pretty picture. I've started reading Victorian novels, with their long, complicated sentences, as a corrective. Maybe George Eliot will save me from galloping mental decline.

When the driver who was blocking the Ormeau Road finally looked up and noticed that I was waiting to let her in, she gave me a cheerful wave.

As she drove off along the road, I gasped as I saw her veer briefly into the oncoming traffic before swerving back into her own lane.

Maybe she hadn't quite finished checking her messages.

If the urge to look at your phone has become so ungovernable that you're a danger to yourself and others, that's a car crash waiting to happen - in every sense.

Belfast Telegraph

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