Why upgrading your iPhone could be a big mistake

What extra productivity are you winning? The dangers of digital device addiction.

By Bloomberg News

Sep 25, 2014 @ 11:17 am EST

Unlike about 10 million other people, Paul Roberts isn't upgrading his iPhone. He's sticking to his two-and-a-half year old iPhone 4S as long as possible.

It's not just that he's avoiding the fistfights and long lines. Mr. Roberts, 53, is the author of a new book, "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification," that makes the case that buying a new phone is part of a broad and serious American affliction.

Since the 1970s, individuals, companies and the government have become increasingly and dangerously focused on the short term, Mr. Roberts argues. Companies buy back their own stock rather than pursuing research and development. Families rack up debt rather than saving. And individuals drop everything to obsess over the phones buzzing and beeping in their pockets. While keeping us connected, these digital devices can also create new anxieties, bleed bank accounts and make it harder to focus on, you know, life.

It's getting more expensive to keep up with the latest phone trends. Americans spent $75 billion on mobile phones last year, up 9.5% from the previous year, Bloomberg Industries estimates, and more than two-thirds of the 176 million phones sold were smartphones. The fastest-growing segment of smartphone buyers are low income, consulting firm NPD Group estimates. Consumers making less than $30,000 now make up 31% of all smartphone sales.

Maybe these new and improved phones will make people more productive, if they make it easier to stay on top of work email or find the quickest way to Chipotle. But most of the time, Roberts says, the extra productivity of a new device is "in how many cat videos you can watch in an hour."

Cat videos are fun, for cat lovers at least. But too often people get distracted from their priorities, writes Roberts. These distractions make parenting and teaching harder. "Every student should have the experience of struggling with a topic for hours," he says. When that effort pays off with an epiphany, students learn an important lesson about the rewards of hard work. Digital devices -- and much of the rest of the economy -- short-circuit that learning process by throwing up constant diversions and Google-able answers.

What promises to make people more productive ends up making them more anxious. If a child or a romantic partner don't text back right away, Roberts notes, people assume the worst. Just a decade ago teenagers could spend all day out of touch without triggering a panic attack in their parents.

While consumers may not benefit financially from an endless upgrade cycle, plenty of companies do. "Early upgrade plans" let smartphone buyers replace phones every year -- for an extra fee. In the past year, enrollment in those plans has more than quadrupled, NPD Group found, from 7% of phone owners last September to 31% in June.

Falling for things that aren't in our long-term best interest is an American tradition, from car dealers enticing buyers with next year's model to fast food and no-money-down mortgages. Roberts isn't against the sale of new cell phones -- those bigger screens look cool to him, too. He's just trying to get people to think twice before they upgrade, or take out a loan. "The market's agenda is different than ours," he says, "and it helps to remind us of that from time to time."

It's also worth noting: You can still watch cat videos on an iPhone 4S.

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