• Berlin
  • It’s not your phone, it’s you


It’s not your phone, it’s you

The average user checks their smartphone 88 times per day. So what’s all this constant connection doing to our heads? Berlin’s foremost expert on smartphone use and mental health, Charité's Dr. Jan Kalbitzer, gives us his surprising answer: Not much!

Image for It’s not your phone, it’s you

Photo by A_Peach (CC BY 2.0)

The average user checks their smartphone 88 times per day. So what’s all this constant connection doing to our heads? Berlin’s foremost expert on smartphone use and mental health, Charité’s Dr. Jan Kalbitzer, gives us his surprising answer: Not much!

Since 2015, Jan Kalbitzer has been working with depressive patients to assess the impact of smartphone and internet use in the development of mental crises. Head of the hospitals Internet and Mental Health Research, the psychiatrist says that if we are sick, it’s society as a whole we should blame, not our screens.

Why is the temptation to check our phones so hard to resist?

It’s about filling the in-between time because you don’t know what to do with yourself. This is a problem of modern society, not of smart phones. We increasingly have the opportunity to distract ourselves – we can travel, we can read, we can watch television. It’s a problem of not being able to be with yourself. I think much more important than putting away the smartphone is to learn the ability to contain the feeling of being uncertain, the feeling of anger, the feeling of fear, what might be your future… We know from research that when you feel that your environment is dangerous, or unstable or uncertain, you feel much more like checking all the time that things are alright. That’s what people do with their phones. There’s also the “play” part. I self-experimented with that – I stripped my smartphone of all the internet things, and after a while I found myself playing around with the weather app, because it’s just about playing with something.

When does one start losing control?

The first thing our patients say is that most of them start to lose control when they’re in a crisis. It’s not like you’re healthy and then you get a smartphone and then you get ill. It’s more like you’re already slightly in a crisis, and then you use your smartphone to hide. And it’s a very good place to hide because you have this feeling of being slightly active, there’s a level of interaction somehow. But this makes it much more difficult to accept your crisis and get help. It’s like a very uncomfortable in-between stage.

But looking around on the train or U-Bahn, everyone seems to be glued to their phones. Are we all in crisis?

No! I think it’s great! We live in such high density in cities. I mean, we’re aggressive beings, we’re territorial. I think it’s a very nice strategy. To me it’s very relaxing that I can disappear with my smartphone on the train, along with all the other people, so we don’t have to have this intensity of constant social interaction. I think that’s something very nice.

You think that burying your face in your smartphone is ‘nice’?

I think some things are really great about using the phone to fill time. You have to see that our days are heavily structured. We have our whole day scheduled from morning to evening, and most of these appointments are useless. The smartphone is the only area in our day where we can just float. And that’s a great experience. Usually 80 percent of what you think you should be doing is just crap, so then you use your smartphone for the whole day, and then at the end of the day you do the 20 percent that’s important. It’s actually quite a helpful thing.

That’s quite an interesting take on it. Why do we feel so guilty when we do it, then?

I think a lot of it is our negative connotations. We believe that it’s negative because it’s new, it’s something that we don’t know. So immediately when you start to use a smartphone you feel guilty, and that’s crap. It’s fun to use a smartphone! I always use the example of kids. If you give a kid a toy that makes a lot of noise and lights, we think that’s great. But were I to give my four-year-old son a smartphone and say, ‘Play with that, it makes noise, it makes lights,’ everybody would say, ‘You can’t do that, it’s wrong.’

Why do you think it’s viewed so negatively?

People like to think that new things are dangerous. And the great problem with that is that avoidance is never a solution: you never learn to deal with stuff that you try to avoid. If you’re scared of something, you don’t actively find a productive and constructive way of dealing with it. I think we should speak about people who write books about the evils of the smartphone and get money for it, what they do to society. It has a very heavy effect on our psyche.

What do you think the appropriate take should be, then?

We’re at the point now where we need to decide how we want society to be. And we can’t just let that happen, we have to actively decide. But if we’re scared, or if we feel guilty while we’re doing it, we’re not in a position to do so. We have those enthusiasts and we have those who feel guilty and who are scared, but there’s no middle group of people saying: this is something new, how do we want that to be part of our lives?

Is this something that comes up regularly in your study?

Part of what we do study is how the assumptions come into people’s heads: who told you that it’s bad to use the smartphone? What we see is that a lot of it is cultural. I’ve had interviews with elderly people who sit there and play Candy Crush on their iPads all the time, and nobody worries about that because they’re old. We always worry about the young; we never worry about the old. Many of the worries are projected on the smartphone, but it has a lot to do with the pattern of experience avoidance: we’re worried that our kids might get too drunk so we stop them from going out, or we’re worried that they might get a tick when they play in the woods, so we take away natural experience from them. This is the background pattern… It’s about much more than just the smartphone.

But surely the impact is greater on young minds that are still learning and forming?

I always say that we teach kids to cross the street, but we don’t teach them how to be online. We just tell them they can’t be there until they’re 12, and then we just let them go – and that doesn’t work. I think there’s a lot of things we need to teach people. For example, that if you post a written message to a group on Whatsapp, people don’t see your expression and so they perceive it in a different way.

What do you think about the kind of social pressure brought on by social media?

This again is the whole societal thing. If you live in a small village or something and people don’t understand you, it’s great to have social media to be able to connect to people who are similar. We see some online games, such as World of Warcraft, with chat options where people can speak very openly. Meanwhile, in, say, football, it’s almost impossible to be openly gay. So if you’re a young homosexual football player, is it better to play World of Warcraft all the time and chat with your friends who understand you, or play football? It’s not so easy to answer that question. We have this image of what is natural and what is right, and that conception will change. But I think we need to change it actively, to decide about the advantages and disadvantages of technology and not focus on the panic part.

What advice would you give to someone who’s worried about their smartphone usage?

If they are worried about the way they use the internet, the first thing they should do is to speak to someone they like and trust. Often the worries we have in our heads are much greater than they really are, so it can help to get an outside perspective. It’s also important not to put too much of a negative perspective on it, because this is extremely powerful. If you think of it too negatively you will not be able to use it in a productive and positive way. And if you decide to go and see a therapist, be prepared for the fact that the problem is probably not your smartphone!

Dr. Jan Kalbitzer is a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy, and the Head of Internet and Mental Health Research at Berlin’s Charité hospital. He’s part of the study “Internet and Mental Health”, a multi-centre research project funded by the Daimler and Benz foundation. Together with scientists in Münster and Tübingen, he aims to find out what role the internet plays in the development of mental crises, such as depression.