The New Heroes: How Smartphones Are Helping To Combat The Pandemic:

They could save the world in the war against the coronavirus”. This was the unlikely headline of a press bulletin published on March 20th by Kaiser Health News (KHN), a non-profit organisation based in San Francisco, California. Unlikely, because many recent assessments of smartphones appear to have focused as much on the perceived harm that these devices do to users’ well-being as on all the many benefits that they provide to society.

For example, the Metro contributor, Jeff Parsons, on 19th February, highlighted a new study conducted by a team of researchers at Heidelberg University in Germany which has suggested that what they portrayed as our addiction to unlimited scrolling and endless notifications could alter the shape of our brains. Now that smartphones have become an indispensable part of modern life, observed Parsons, it’s understandable that a debate has been raging about whether it’s all become a bit too much for us.

Likewise, Sean Coughlan, the BBC News family and education correspondent, on 29th November quoted the results of an investigation by BMC Psychiatry into young people’s “problematic smartphone usage”. This suggested that 23% of those questioned experience anxiety if they are unable to use their phone – a phenomenon known as “nomophobia” (the fear of being without your mobile) – and spend so much time on it that it has a detrimental effect on their other activities.

A report published by Ofcom, the communications regulator, confirms that the UK has become a “ smartphone nation” . It estimates that two-thirds of the country’s population owns one, using it for an average of 2 hours 28 minutes every day (twice as long as with laptops and PCs) to search the internet, access social media, manage their bank accounts and shop online. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes a day among 18-24 year-olds. Consequently, 72% of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the internet, 71% say they never turn off their phone and 78% say they couldn’t live without it.

Ryan Whitwam, a commentator for the ComScore media measurement & analytics company, has noted that by far the most startling statistic from the data they’ve compiled on this issue is that one in five millennials don’t even use desktops any more: “Advances in hardware and software mean that there are fewer times you need to put the phone away and revert to a “real” computer to accomplish something” – thus a lot of casual browsing has migrated from the PCs to mobiles.

None of this bothers the Canadian journalist, Jesse Brown. In an article for “Toronto Life”, he accepted that “the pull of our glowing rectangles is hard to resist”, but considers that the challenge is not to resist them, but to reconcile constant digital connectivity with being human: “Technology is something we make and use, not something that is done to us”.

Professor Jon Crowcroft, Chair of the Programme Committee at the Alan Turing Institute, clearly agrees. On 18th March, he declared that scientists, the NHS (National Health Service) and their counterparts around the world should urgently enlist smartphones and their owners to collect invaluable data on the unfolding pandemic, which could provide crucial intelligence about how it’s evolving and help organise against the onslaught.

As KHN pointed out, officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have urged hospitals and clinics to expand their use of telehealth services (also known as “remote or virtual care”) by means of smartphones in order to treat the seriously ill and keep the “worried well” out of already crowded medical facilities.

Dan Hanfling and Tara O’Toole, specialist physicians with the American information technology firm In-Q-Tel, emphasised in the Washington Post on 13th March that digital health tools, including telemedicine and smartphone-based messaging applications can and should play an important role in fighting Covid-19. These would furthermore promote the “social distancing” (dissuading people from congregating) required to limit community proliferation of the disease – a key factor acknowledged by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 20th March when he announced the closure of restaurants, pubs, bars,clubs, cinemas, gyms, theatres and other similar venues across the United Kingdom.

The Observer columnist, John Naughton, pointed out in the newspaper on 15th March that “one of the things that makes this epidemic different from it’s predecessors is the dominance of social media in today’s world”. This was followed up on 21st March by the Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson in his assessment of WhatsApp’s attempts to shed its reputation as “a hub of virus disinformation”. He acknowledged that the service, despite its image as a source of unverified claims, has nonetheless “become vital for organising many community responses and turned into a platform for sharing humour in dark times”.

According to the Economist’s edition of 21st March, there could still be “hiccups” with the mobile networks, which – as Mark Jackson of the independent UK Internet Service Provider told the magazine – are generally adapted to a lower level of data traffic than fixed-line broadband. Hence, people who rely on mobile broadband may experience occasional delays and some apps could initially struggle due to the extra load on the system.

Filed under: Healthcare, Media | Posted on March 24th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon

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