According to a new university study, smartphones aren’t just toys or communication devices – increasingly they’re where we live our lives, which is having a detrimental effect on human interactions

Says who?

Says some very clever people from University College London (UCL). An 11-strong team of anthropologists and researchers spent 16 months embedded in 10 communities across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America in order to survey smartphone use there. The resulting publication runs to 300 pages and is called The Global Smartphone.

What does it tell us?

One of its more startling findings is that we now view our phones in much the same way as we view our houses. “The smartphone is no longer just a device that we use, it’s become the place where we live,” says UCL’s Professor Daniel Miller, leader of the study. “We may understand it better by thinking of it as a place within which we live, rather than as a device that we use. There are many ways in which people treat the smartphone as a domestic space.”

Anything else?

There’s lots of cool jargon. Perpetual Opportunism is used to refer to the ability to always be online and how that changes our relationship to the world around us. Another phrase the academics use when referring to the smartphone is to call is a Transportal Home, meaning a house you can carry in your pocket and disappear into when the mood takes you.

And this Death of Proximity stuff?

More jargon, and an even more worrying finding of the research. It’s an aspect of the same phone-as-home thing but specifically the phrase refers to the fact that just being near somebody in a social situation is no guarantee they’re going to look at, talk to or engage with you. “At any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we’re with can just disappear, having ‘gone home’ to their smartphone,” says Professor Miller. “This behaviour, and the frustration, disappointment or even offence it can cause, is what we’re calling the ‘death of proximity’. We are learning to live with the jeopardy that even when we are physically together, we can be socially, emotionally or professionally alone.”

That’s depressing …

It is, though anyone with teenage children will recognise the scenario. Even worse, however, the fact of having a digital home in your pocket means that when you shut the door on your actual bricks and mortar home you can’t necessarily shut out some of the bad things that come with smartphone ownership. Like annoying work calls from your boss or distressing social media messages from online bullies and trolls.

Any good news?

Sort of. “The smartphone is helping us create and recreate a vast range of helpful behaviours, from re-establishing extended families to creating new spaces for healthcare and political debate,” says Professor Millar.