A viral cure to a real problem? Source: "Look Up" on YouTube
A viral cure to a real problem? Source: "Look Up" on YouTube

Lots of people are addicted to their smartphones and hate themselves for it. Otherwise the video called "Look Up" by Gary Turk, a self-described writer and director, wouldn't have garnered so much attention.

The five-minute film, which has attracted more than 20 million views on YouTube, has the glossy quality of a commercial and a butterfly-effect plot. In one reality, a boy asks a girl directions to an address scribbled on a piece of paper, then takes the girl out, marries her and has kids and grandkids. In another, the boy uses a navigator on his iPhone and does not see the girl pass him by. Through it all, Turk solemnly declaims a poem he's written about alienation in the mobile age.

It has all the right ingredients: some lefty rage ("A world where we’re slaves to the technology we mastered / Where information gets sold by some rich, greedy bastard"), some lost-generation rhetoric ("we're a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people"), some sappy sentimentality ("She then whispers to you quietly as her heart gives a final beat / That she's lucky she got stopped by that lost boy in the street"), even some humility ("I am guilty too of being part of this machine").

In other words, it's that perfect pop culture product that promotes its creator above all by milking a familiar, instant emotion. In this case, the emotion being milked is the geeky equivalent of an alcoholic's self-pity. It fits in well with the obvious irony of a viral video about the evil of social networks.

Millions of people feel guilty about spending too much time with their mobile devices. The official name for the condition is the not very imaginative "problematic mobile phone use." A less scientific one, coined by the U.K.-based research organization YouGov, is nomophobia (No Mobile Phone Phobia). Phone addiction has been linked to car accidents and depression. There are hundreds of (web-based) tests you can take to find out whether you're addicted to your phone. Researchers have developed tools such as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale and the Facebook Intrusion Questionnaire. Experts discuss whether the word "anxiety" is more apt than "phobia" in describing the feelings of someone who has left his gadget at home.

So is this a pop craze or a real problem? People are spending more and more time with various media, and most of the increase comes from mobile device usage. According to eMarketer.com, the average U.S. adult spends 12 hours, 14 minutes a day with some kind of media, up from 10 hours, 46 minutes in 2010. The share of time spent on a mobile device increased in the same period to 23.3 percent from 3.7 percent. The least creative ways to spend one's time and the least efficient ways to receive information appear to win over the more creative, more efficient ones. Daily time spent with video increased to 5 hours, 23 minutes in 2014 from 4 hours, 30 minutes in 2010. I had to spend five minutes watching Turk's video instead of the 90 seconds it would have taken me to read his poem -- though it would not have grabbed my attention had it been published in text form.

The real problem lies in those extra 88 minutes. They do make it less likely that boy will meet girl offline, or that family time will be spent tossing the ball or running with the dog. We have only 11 hours, 46 minutes left in a day for activities that do not involve media consumption, only 12 hours, 26 minutes when we are not staring at one screen or another, and at least six hours of that quota is given over to sleep. Perhaps three more hours is time at work that is spent in meetings and other forms of direct communications. If the remaining three hours keep shrinking as they have done in the last four years, we will have no time for "real life" at all.

Most people have no experience with addiction: They have been moderate enough to avoid substance abuse. The mobile problem appears to be affecting people who don't read the symptoms well enough to understand they have to cut down. Kudos to Turk for grabbing their attention in a way to which nomophobes can relate.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.