Cell phones are a huge part of modern culture — according to Statista, by 2017 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.77 billion. And some market reports also suggest that since the release of the smart-phone, the human attention span decreased below that of a goldfish.

It's no surprise, that the effect of mobile phones on the human condition has become a popular area of study.

Anton Scamvougeras is one of many scientists delving into the phenomenon. He is the author of Dysconnected: Isolated by our Mobile Devices, and joined host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's BC Almanac to discuss how attached humans are to their hand-held devices.

"We are tending to become isolated by our mobile devices," said Scamvougeras, a UBC neuropsychiatrist. "Not just isolated from people and the world around us, but also isolated from, arguably, aspects of ourselves."

He says one of the most 'insidious' aspects of the mobile addiction is the intrusion on gap time — the act of reaching for a device whenever there's a spare space in our day.

snout face

An illustration by Anton Scamvougeras in his book Dysconnected: Isolated by our Mobile Devices. (Anton Scamvougeras)

"The idea that this has taken the place of those quiet periods where we would have to reflect, and even be bored and just think about the world ... that's arguably a very important experience that many people are now just negating completely," said Scamvougeras.

"I can still remember the first time I saw a couple sitting at a table, each of them on a mobile device," said Scamvougeras. "It was quite shocking, but right now it's commonplace."

Observing those images inspired Scamvougeras to create the illustrations that line the book, each one featuring a snout-faced humanoid that can only consume what's displayed on its cell phone.

"[The artwork] came from a different part of myself," said the neuropsychiatrist. "A more emotional, more non-verbal response to what we've been seeing around us."

Dissolving creativity

Dysconnected

Anton Scamvougeras says he channelled his emotional side to create the illustrations that populate his book. (Anton Scamvogueras)

Neurotherapist Dr. Mary Swingle, author of iMinds: How Cellphones,Computers, Gaming and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behaviour, and the Evolution of our Species, says mobile devices are commendable inventions, but in the end they can actually work to stifle innovation.

"If the technologies are integrated in modern life, they can be fabulous," she said. "But the problem is they're interfering — they're overriding the social, they're overriding the creativity."

"If you don't have boredom, if you don't have blank spaces, then you don't have creativity — ideas don't spark."

Much of Swingle's research has focused on how mobile technology affects learning. She says it can actually benefit teaching subjects like mathematics — but overall, mobile use is becoming excessive.

"It's not all bad — but it should be in addition, not in override," she said.

On the beach

Anton Scamvogueras illustrations were inspired by observations he made of people fixated on their mobile devices. (Anton Scamvogueras)

"We have whole generations now that don't look up and think. What are the next generations going to look at, or look like without this level of innovation?"

With files from CBC's BC Almanac


To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Neuropsychiatrist Anton Scamvougeras explores the isolating effect of mobile phones on the human condition