Social Impact Of Smartphones
Start reading

In 2015, University of Pennsylvania researchers set out to learn more about the impact of social motivators on exercise. One group of gym-enrolled students received regular reminders, videos and fitness tips to their smartphones, while another group saw only the activity and achievements of their "health buddies" – other students they were matched up with anonymously.

After 13 weeks, the "reminders and tips" group had seen almost no long-term change in gym attendance, while the "health buddies" group saw a noticeable bump. Study author Jingwen Zhang said: "We were able to use the positive signals to form a reinforcing loop that pushed everyone to exercise more."

In another example, a Northwestern University project in 2013 examined the weight loss regime of 70 overweight men, with one group recording their diet and exercise on pen and paper, and another using a specially-developed app to set goals and monitor progress. The results were amazing – the app-using group lost an average of 3.9kg more at each three-monthly checkpoint in the study.

Three month checkpoint

3.9kgAVG Loss

App-using group

While there isn't a huge amount of scientific research yet, so far the signs point to yes – we do feel more motivated to work out when we're exposed to our friends' activity on social media, and mobile apps can be a big help too. So rather than complain about people's run times clogging up your Facebook feed, why not grab an app and join in?

A study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that compared to landlines, calls to emergency services from smartphones save around 137 more lives per 100,000 patients in the UK. This is because emergency services can be notified faster, and by people who are likely to be closer to the scene of the accident and thus in a position to help while they wait for an ambulance to arrive.

The use of mobile phones has the advantage of immediacy of access, in particular in situations such as road traffic incidents, outdoor accidents, and injuries as well as incidents occurring at rural locations

"The use of mobile phones has the advantage of immediacy of access, in particular in situations such as road traffic incidents, outdoor accidents, and injuries as well as incidents occurring at rural locations," said the study authors.

Features such as Apple Health's Medical ID could also help by showing a list of details such as medical conditions, allergies and blood type on the phone's unlock screen, where paramedics can easily see it.

That's not to mention all the diagnostic apps and add-ons available, such as eye exam kit Peek and melanoma-detecting DermoScreen. While these apps shouldn't replace a visit to the doctor, they can be useful in spotting symptoms early so they can be checked out professionally.

Wearables: A fitness revolution?

Wearables are undoubtedly a game-changer for anyone who's serious about health and fitness. To be able to track your heart rate, calories burned, miles run and much more on one device – and use all that data to fine-tune a workout and diet regime – makes it easier than ever to apply science to your health at home.

According to analyst Mintel, health-focused wearables are soaring in the UK – with over three million wrist-mounted devices sold in 2015 alone, 63% of which were fitness bands. The company estimates that as many as one in seven Brits currently owns some form of wearable technology.

In many ways, wearable tech is a logical evolution of the smartphone – why carry a device that's with you at all times when you can just wear it? Handsets are expected to be with us for a while yet, but it seems likely that the future will see devices blend seamlessly with our clothing.

As the technology is still fairly new, there's not much research on how effective these devices are in the long term. But there is anecdotal evidence to suggest people who wear them tend to feel more motivated to stay on top of their fitness goals.

Brits currently own some form of wearable tech
Go out of their way to increase their daily steps

ResearchKit is an open-source set of tools for making research apps that healthcare professionals can use to gain an incredible range of insights about patients, diseases and conditions.

For example, the mPower app, created to study Parkinson's disease, has already enrolled more than 10,000 participants to become the world's biggest collaborative study of the disease. Patients simply agree to take part in the study, and their phones do most of the work for them.

The app uses the iPhone's gyroscope to measure important Parkinson's indicators like patients' coordination and balance, while in-app exercises can test things like memory. Users can also submit information about their sleep quality, exercise levels and moods to build a more complete picture of how the disease affects them.

To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centres

Meanwhile, a cardiovascular study at Stanford University attracted 11,000 volunteers in just 24 hours. "To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centres around the country,” Alan Yeung, medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health, told Bloomberg.

"That’s the power of the phone."

Smartphones and the next generation of healthcare

The healthcare revolution enabled by smartphones is only just beginning - but it promises to be one of the biggest shake-ups to the doctor-patient relationship in decades.

The healthcare revolution enabled by smartphones is only just beginning - but it promises to be one of the biggest shake-ups to the doctor-patient relationship in decades.

A growing number of apps are enabling people to self-manage conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other long-term conditions at home, which means less time spent in clinics for them, and more time and resources freed up for medical staff.

Diabetes apps link with a glucose sensor implanted in the patient to provide updates on blood sugar levels every five minutes, sending an alert if the patient needs to take action. As well as helping people to manage their conditions wherever they are, these apps can share vital information with their doctors so any complications can be spotted early.

The Office for Life Sciences predicts that the so-called “mHealth” sector will grow by more than a third in the UK between 2014 and 2018.

Expected growth (in millions)

The GSMA, which represents around 800 mobile operators around the world, produces annual reports estimating the contribution of the total mobile economy – which includes manufacturers, app developers and operators – to the global GDP.

Smartphone industry contribution to global GDP ($ trillions)

In 2015, the mobile economy made up $3.1 trillion, or 4.2% of the global GDP. To break it down, this means that for every $100 of wealth in the world's economy, $4.20 is in some way thanks to smartphones – not bad for an industry that only really kicked into gear ten years ago.

Smartphone industry global direct employment (millions)

Smartphones also create a lot of jobs across the globe – from the people who manufacture electronics, cameras and casings to the employees in your local Carphone Warehouse.

The industry as a whole supported 17 million jobs in 2015, which is expected to rise to 20 million by 2020 – and that's just people employed directly within the industry. The sector is estimated to support an additional 15 million jobs indirectly: for instance, it's unlikely Uber would have taken off the way it did if it wasn't for smartphones.

Jobs in the Industry


From being a small niche of the electronics industry in the 1990s, the mobile phone has become a vital cornerstone of the world economy, even giving birth to a few industries of its own (like mobile gaming) along the way.

Before this, people might use smartphones and tablets to do their research, compare products and so on, but they tended to save the actual purchase for when they got home. Mobiles were handy for browsing, but perhaps weren't quite trusted with our financial information.

It's only recently that they've become the dominant online shopping platform – and considering around one in six of all retail sales now take place online, that's a pretty big deal.

There's another important way phones have changed our shopping habits: contactless payment. Paying for everyday goods has become more convenient than ever (some might say too convenient) because you don't even need to fumble in your wallet for change or enter a PIN.

This kind of spending is soaring – according to the latest figures from Payments UK, contactless transactions (including contact cards) more than doubled over the last year, with an average of £8.96 spent per purchase.

1 in 6
Of retail sales happen online
Avg amount spent on contactless transactions in uk last year

Are smartphones boosting British business?

A record number of British startups were created in 2016 - according to StartUp Britain, new businesses were being born at a rate of 80 an hour, following on from 70 an hour in 2015 which was itself a record-breaking year. But how much of this can be attributed to smartphones?

British Digital Hubs

Quite a bit, it turns out. The UK’s app economy is the largest in Europe by far - a Progressive Policy Institute study in 2016 found that more than 321,000 British jobs are now supported by the app industry. Meanwhile, Tech Nation 2016 identified 58,000 businesses active in the digital economy - of which 17% are involved with app and software development and 11.5% in hardware and devices.

British jobs supported by the app industry

This surge in appetite for hi-tech businesses has spawned a number of digital hubs around the country, including London, Brighton, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester - places where digitally-minded entrepreneurs with bright ideas can get together to turn them into success.

Britain has a long history of inventiveness and entrepreneurship, and the figures show we’ve been anything but slow to embrace the smartphone revolution.

As well as saving money for the company, this promotes autonomy and flexibility for employees. They’re free to use the devices they feel most comfortable with, and it makes home working that much more convenient - they already have their emails and other important information to hand.

And while bosses might worry about employees whiling away their time on Candy Crush, studies suggest that’s not the case. Pew Research Center found that 46% of working adults feel more productive as a result of being able to use internet and smartphones while at work, compared to just 7% who think they’re less productive.

Of working adults feel more productive when able to use their smartphone at work

Major benefits highlighted by the study were the amount of flexibility the technologies provide, as well as the ability to expand the number of people employees can communicate with. 35% of workers even enjoyed the fact that they could work more hours thanks to having an office in their pocket.

Another study, for the Society of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, found that regular smartphone “microbreaks” throughout the day can have a positive effect at work. Taking around 20 minutes a day out to text a friend, catch up on the news or check social media led to happier, more fulfilled employees - in fact, social media in particular was shown to increase wellbeing.

We buy smartphones so we can interact with people

“We buy smartphones so we can interact with people,” said study author Sooyeol Kim. “We use them for social interaction, so I think that’s why social media was shown to make employees the most happy.”

The rise and rise of mobile gaming can be explained by one crucial thing: accessibility. From Snake to Angry Birds to Candy Crush, the most successful mobile games have always easy to pick up and hard to put down. Far from epic sagas that take hundreds of hours to complete, they're short, sweet experiences aimed firmly at a casual audience - people who perhaps don't even consider themselves gamers.

Mobiles games market value


That's the key to mobile's success – by opening the gate to millions of people (who already carry the "console" around in their pockets) it's become the single most successful gaming platform.

And the future's about to get a whole lot more exciting. With Google Cardboard and the upcoming Daydream giving everyone the opportunity to turn their smartphone into a virtual reality headset, mobile gaming's pioneering a whole new realm of entertainment.

An estimated 43 million people used virtual reality devices regularly in 2016 – by 2018, that's expected to climb to over 170 million. Will you be one of them?

As well as making it easier for parents to stay in touch with kids and check up on what they're doing away from home, a 2014 study by Ericsson Consumerlab found that smartphones have brought a number of positive benefits to family life. 82% of parents agreed that they make day-to-day planning and logistics easier, while three quarters said they help parents have better contact with their children.


Of parents agreed smartphones make daily tasks easier

Additionally, 60% of mums say they have contact with their child at least twice a day via text. The research also suggested that parents who use apps like WhatsApp and Kik have eight times more communication with their children than those who don’t - so maybe there’s something to be said for being an embarrassingly hip parent after all.

Research also suggests that modern parents are pretty sensible about their children’s smartphone time. An Ofcom report in 2016 found that the majority of British parents believe their children have a good balance between “screen time” and other activities, while 99% have some form of approach to manage their children’s online lives - the most popular being parental supervision and talks about online risks.

Are dating apps helping more find romance?

As the modern world’s premier means of communication, it’s perhaps not surprising that smartphones have impacted our romantic lives too. Apps like Tinder, OKCupid and Plenty of Fish have made it easier than ever to search for a soulmate (successfully or otherwise).

Not everyone thinks dating apps have been a good thing - “swipe right culture” is often held up as an example of the modern world’s obsession with appearances and casual hookups. However, talk to the users and it seems many of them disagree.

A study by HTC found that 37% of people using dating apps have met a partner through them, and the research also gave some useful insights into how to craft a killer profile: red was considered the most attractive colour on women, while men should wear blue along with a suit jacket and skinny jeans. (Man buns were voted the least attractive feature, in case you were wondering).

Dating apps have also given us some insight into how we choose potential partners. A paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, for example, found that it pays to be nice on dating profiles. Women rated men whose profiles contained phrases like “When I’m dating someone, I really care about putting in the effort and making it work” as more physically attractive - especially if they read it straight after seeing a phrase like “I get bored talking about feelings” on a different profile.

Women rated men whose profiles contained phrases like

When I’m dating someone, I really care about putting in the effort and making it work

Between 2008 and 2010, Professor Keith Hampton at Rutgers University collected video footage of public spaces in New York, aiming to make a comparison with a similar study on urban loneliness in the 1970s. Had tiny screens made our worlds even smaller? In fact, the opposite seemed to be true.

Even in busy public locations like the steps of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, only three per cent of people were using their phones at any given moment. The study also found 11% more people travelling in groups of more than one, and a huge 57% increase overall in the number of people using public spaces to socialise.

Mark Zuckerberg

Messaging is one of the few things that people do more than social networking

Meanwhile, instant messaging apps like Kik and Whatsapp – considered by some to be the future of social media – are booming. More than 2.5 billion people worldwide now have a messaging app, and consultancy Activate predicts that half the human race will have one in a couple of years.

Smartphones are sometimes blamed for a decline in face-to-face communication - and let’s face it, we’ve all had moments with our friends when everyone’s on their phones and nobody’s talking. But really, aren't we just changing the way we communicate?

Of people consider the internet a positive force in their social world

Driving social media

Social media apps are, of course, one of the most popular uses for smartphones: mobile devices account for 70% of access to such sites in the UK, where an estimated 38 million people are members of networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Of adults with a social media profile say they visit it more than ten times a day

There's no denying we're a nation of social media addicts, but while some are alarmed at the influence of these sites in our lives, there are positive aspects too. Nearly half (46%) of Brits think they know more people thanks to time spent on social media sites, and using social media ranked top on a list of "What makes us happy" in the Guardian's Mood of the Nation report.

Of Brits think they know more people thanks to time spent on social media sites

Social media's also helped spread the word of a variety of good causes – from the Ice Bucket Challenge to the Haiti earthquake relief effort, it's worth remembering that there's been a lot of positives in amongst all the selfies and FOMO.

But it's not all bad - especially among the younger generation. 41% of 18 to 29-year-olds said they felt closer to their partner because of text messages or online conversations they'd had.

And sometimes the little bit of distance offered by a phone can actually help – 23% of the same group said they'd resolved a conflict via digital means that they were having trouble addressing in person.


Of people in a long-term relationship share the passwords to at least one of their online accounts

In another touching story for the digital age, more than two-thirds (67%) of people in a long-term relationship report sharing the passwords to at least one of their online accounts – while 25% have texted their partner affectionately even though they were both at home together.

In 2015, the IPACA school in Dorset experimented with a Bring Your Own Device policy, with pupils encouraged to use their smartphones as a learning aid. Similar initiatives are now underway in New York's public schools.

IPACA's pupils have access to the school library online via their phones, which have to be face-up and unlocked on the desk so teachers can see what they're doing.

While the study is still ongoing, the signs are promising: the majority of students, the school says in a report, demonstrate "independent engagement with learning in new digital contexts", "self-selection of suitable applications for schooled learning" and are more likely to take the lead in collaborative learning with parents.

It's easy to see how smartphones could be an unwelcome distraction to learning. But education expert Professor David Buckingham says the issue shouldn't be whether or not teachers ban phones in the classroom – instead, educators should consider how to take full advantage of them.

Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge

"Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge," he said.

"Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed 10 years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook?"

How smartphones can help self-education

You're never too old to learn new skills – and smartphone apps have made it easier than ever to teach yourself languages, coding and more. These offer a combination of one-to-one tuition via video chat, interactive exercises and tests, and most importantly they're low-cost and available to all.

People Are Using Duolingo

The world's never been more connected, and being able to speak a second language is a major plus, whether for a career, making friends or just to get more out of your holidays. Free apps like DuoLingo are helping to break down language barriers all over the world: the app has 120 million users, around half of which are using it to study English.

Another major benefit to mobile learning is the ability to fit studies around other commitments, like work and family. A 2013 study found that "lifelong learners" using a smartphone were consistently more motivated to learn during the day and throughout the whole week, compared to laptop and desktop users who tended to keep their study time to evenings and weekends.

It may be hard to imagine life without a bank account, education or healthcare, but it’s the reality for millions of people in the developing world. However, low-cost smartphones, together with some seriously clever programmes, are putting power into the hands of people in ways that have never been seen before.

Amount of people with a smartphone in emerging economies


Smartphone ownership in the developing world remains relatively low, but it's growing. Pew Global estimated that 21% of people in emerging economies owned a smartphone in 2013 – just two years later, this had increased to 37%.


  • Text messaging is helping the fight against AIDs and HIV in Mozambique - a recent programme reminding patients about appointments and therapy improved retention rates by 24%
  • Mobile learning is training new teachers in rural Pakistan, through a scheme that delivers 300 free lessons in English and Maths via Wi-Fi hotspots - in a country where five million children have no access to education
  • A USAID programme is using mobile banking to encourage African farmers to save up for fertiliser, while providing information through text messages about crop prices, disease prevention and market access
  • The number of “unbanked” people in the world dropped by 2 billion between 2011 and 2014 - largely thanks to mobile banking services

It's not too surprising that 96% of British children say they use their smartphones to access the internet – but 91% also say they use them to help their studies, the highest percentage of all eight countries surveyed.

86% use social networks – but again studies suggests children are pretty canny when it comes to online safety, with 82% saying their privacy settings are set to "private" or "partially private" to limit access to their information.

Children are also gaining valuable digital literacy skills through their smartphone use. 80% of British kids aged 13 or older know how to block messages that they don't want to receive, while according to Ofcom, 40% of 5 to 15-year-olds know how to use photo editing software.

Of british kids say they use their phones to help with studies
Of 12-15 year olds have signed an online petition

Smartphones in higher education

Talk about smartphones' role in learning is often restricted to primary and secondary school, but what about higher education – how can these devices benefit students who are mostly responsible for their own learning?

Of Students Found Smartphones Beneficial For Accessing Coursework
Of students in 2014 used apps to aid their revision

A two-year study of students at the University of Central Florida found that those enrolled in a degree course see a wide range of benefits from integrating smartphones into their studies - particularly accessing coursework (72%), communicating with fellow students (65%) and tutors (60%), and increasing knowledge of their study area (48%).

Apps like Quizlet and Flashcards were cited as popular revision aids, while students also used apps like Evernote, Dropbox, iBooks and Wikipanion. eBooks in particular are growing in popularity – 60% of students in 2014 had used one to aid their coursework, compared to 42% in 2012.

This is not to mention some of the creative uses students have found for their devices in their own study projects. For example, students at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute are currently using low-cost smartphones as data-loggers to monitor climate conditions at archaeological sites.

The so-called "smart stones" can collect temperature, humidity and light conditions from a site in Turkey every five seconds and stream them instantly via 3G to the lab in Oxford. Not only are they cheaper than conventional sensors, they're more reliable and, since the phones are solar-powered, more eco-friendly too!

A report in Current Biology found that using touchscreens has a noticeable effect on the way our fingertips interact with our brains. By monitoring brainwaves, University of Zurich neuroscientist Arko Ghosh found that smartphone users have “enhanced thumb sensory representation in the brain”.

Smartphone users have

Enhanced thumb sensory representation in the brain

In other words, the parts of the brain that receive information from the thumb, index and middle fingers - the ones we use the most for touchscreens - become more sensitive and fine-tuned the more we use smartphones.

This effect has already been reported in musicians and video gamers in the past, but the research suggests that you don’t have to be a concert pianist to develop more dextrous fingers - all that tapping and swiping’s already doing the work for you.

This is partly because these apps provide private and anonymous self-monitoring for conditions that many people don't feel comfortable talking about. While this may not solve the issue by itself, it can a vital first step to getting help from a mental health professional.

Researchers from Liverpool University and Manchester University evaluated the Catch It app, which allows users to record a mood diary and uses techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to encourage more positive patterns of thought.

The researchers found that app users had "significant" reductions in the intensity of their negative moods, while positive moods were increased.

With more research, we hope this app might benefit people with a range of mental health problems

"Our research demonstrates that using the app can help people to broaden their perspectives of their problems, making a positive difference to how they are feeling," said study author Dr Sara Tai.

"With more research, we hope this app might benefit people with a range of mental health problems."

Data from Ericsson show just how incredibly global mobile data traffic has rocketed. In 2010, all the world’s smartphones used around 94 million GB a month. Fast forward seven years, and monthly smartphone traffic is around 6.8 billion GB, and it just keeps growing - by 2022, it’s expected to be in the region of 63 billion GB.

Monthly smartphone traffic (gb)


This explosion in demand for better, faster mobile internet has spurred on amazing advances in wireless data technology. 3G, the first “serious” data service, allowed data rates of around 2MB/s.

This was increased to 200MB/s for the next generation, 4G, while the incoming 5G is expected to take it to 1GB/s - enough to download an entire movie in a matter of seconds. Just ten years ago, this would have seemed like magic.

Home connections are getting faster all the time too, partly thanks to people using smartphones on their domestic WiFi networks. technology (500Mbps) is expected to be the next big thing in broadband – BT anticipates that by 2020, 10 million homes and businesses will be served by the ultrafast network, and most of the UK by 2025.

How do smartphones change the way we travel?

Few industries have been so disrupted by the smartphone revolution than travel. Not too long ago, travel agents were more or less the sole source of knowledge when it came to planning a trip abroad.

Now anybody can research a holiday, plan activities, check reviews of local restaurants and book the whole thing with nothing more than the device in their pocket, while apps like Airbnb and TripAdvisor are single-handedly upending long-established parts of the industry.

In 2016, an estimated 36% of British holidaymakers booked a break on a tablet or smartphone, while 62% of "last minute holidays" are also researched on mobile.

Of airports offer or are planning to offer a mobile app to help customers

There are less obvious ways smartphones are changing travel habits. For instance, airports across the world are ditching paper tickets and adopting mobile boarding passes – and there are signs that in the future, biometric-enabled smartphones could double up as passport ID too.

Meanwhile, airports like Helsinki are even using passengers' Wi-Fi signals to improve flow management – by scanning for where the most phones are concentrated, they can figure out where and why frustrating bottlenecks are happening.

Of last minute holidays are researched online

This finding is partly due to the way different generations use the devices. Younger people are more likely to be active on several social networks at once, and may feel pressured to constantly update statuses, check timelines, respond to requests - and perhaps read work emails out of the office too.

In contrast, seniors are more likely to have a healthier relationship with their phones. They're more likely to use their phones for calling and texting family, or leisurely browsing of the internet – and see the devices as a tool to be used, rather than an all-consuming distraction.

Age comparison for who would miss their phone

Of over 55s wouldn’t miss their phone
Of younger people couldn’t live without

Smartphone adoption has been rising among the elderly for several years – in 2012, just one in twenty British over-65s owned one, compared to nearly one in five in 2015.

However, they're far less attached to their phones than youngsters – an Ofcom survey found just 6% of over-55s would miss it if it was taken away, while younger respondents overwhelmingly named their phone as the one device they couldn't live without.

Maybe there's something older folks can teach the younger generation about smartphones after all.