Smartphones make people distracted and unproductive

Smartphones make people distracted and unproductiveSilicon Valley is draining away the economy's most precious resource for its own benefit.

OK, I'd better explain that.

The economy's most precious resource is human attention — specifically, the attention people pay to their work. No matter what kind of company you own, run or work for, the employees of that company are paid for not only their skill, experience and work, but also for their attention and creativity.

When, say, Facebook and Google grab user attention, they're taking that attention away from other things. One of those things is the work you're paying employees to do.

As a thought experiment, imagine that an employee who used to pay attention to your business eight hours each day now pays attention only seven hours a day because he or she is now focusing on Facebook during that last hour. You're paying the employee the same, but getting less employee attention for it.

Facebook is getting that attention - and monetizing it with additional advertising dollars. In short, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is transferring wealth from your company to his. And he's doing it every day, and constantly increasing how much he takes.

Of course, it's far more complicated than that. Employees are distracted by smartphones, web browsers, messaging apps, shopping sites and lots of social networks beyond Facebook. More alarming is that the problem is growing worse, and fast.

One data point from the analytics firm Flurry found that US users are spending more than five hours per day using their smartphones and that the time spent using mobile apps increased 69% in a single year (from 2015 to 2016).

The time spent on social networks is also growing fast. The Global Web Index says says people now spend more than two hours each day on social networks, on average. That extra time is facilitated by smartphones and apps.

If you're suddenly hearing a lot of chatter about the deleterious effects of smartphones and social networks, it's partly because of a new book coming out Aug. 22 called iGen. In the book, author Jean M. Twenge makes the case that young people are "on the brink of a mental health crisis" caused mainly by growing up with smartphones and social networks. (You can read an excerpt in the September issue of The Atlantic - which, incidentally, is now owned by Steve Jobs' widow, according to this article in The Washington Post, which, incidentally, is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. We'll save the topic "tech money buying old media" for a future column.)

These depressed, smartphone-addicted iGen kids are now entering the workforce and represent the future of employers. That's why something has got to be done about the smartphone distraction problem.

But wait! Isn't that the same kind of luddite fear-mongering that attended the arrival of TV, videogames and the Internet itself?

It's not clear. What is clear is that smartphones measurably distract.