• A new report from University College London looks at how people interact with and rely on their smartphones.
  • For The Global Smartphone, researchers spent 16 months living in communities in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America to investigate how smartphones are used.
  • The smartphone has become 'a place within which we live', rather than a device that we use, they say.

You are a snail and your smartphone is your shell – it has become your home.

As bizarre as that might sound, it’s the view of a team of anthropologists who spent more than a year examining the relationship people have with their smartphones.

In the report The Global Smartphone, the team of researchers from University College London document how people of all ages interact with and rely on their smartphones for a wide range of everyday support.

Among their observations was that the smartphone – now one of the most ubiquitous technology devices of all time with billions of users worldwide – isn’t often used to make phone calls. Not when compared to the range of other uses people put them to.

Our smartphones are instead best understood as places “within which we now live,” the report’s authors say. “We are always ‘at home’ in our smartphone.”

All of which leads them to this conclusion: “We have become human snails carrying our home in our pockets.”

Number of smartphone users worldwide from 2016 to 2023
Number of smartphone users worldwide from 2016 to 2023
Image: Newzoo/Statista

The death of proximity

The researchers each spent 16 months living in communities in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America and looking at how smartphones are used.

Their report is filled with anecdotes about the people they studied, including Sato san, a 90-year-old flower arranger from Japan. From her home in Kyoto, Sato san organizes the students she teaches, maintains a blog, orders food, checks bus timetables and more – all from her smartphone, which is described as “central to her work and life.”

With the ability to take the device everywhere comes the idea that no one is ever far from the things that matter most to them.

It’s a phenomenon that can lead to common misunderstandings. The report gives an example of someone in a restaurant neglecting their companion by looking at their smartphone. “What has happened is that the individual has, in effect, gone home,” it says. “They can use this portal to zone out from the place where they are sitting, to return to a home in which they can carry out many familiar activities, from finding entertainment to organising their schedule or messaging friends or relatives through text and visual media.”

The psychology of interacting with a smartphone echoes the way in which many people relate to their homes, too, according to the report. There are different apps for different purposes, in much the same way that the rooms in a house each meet a different need.

The smartphone is a ‘transportal home’, or a ‘place within which we live’, the study says.
The smartphone is a ‘transportal home’, or a ‘place within which we live’, the study says.
Image: Georgiana Murariu/UCL/The Global Smartphone

The report’s authors do acknowledge that it can be disconcerting to find yourself sitting next to someone who has, in many respects, left and gone home – even though they are still with you physically.

No place like home

It can be helpful when thinking about the concept of the smartphone-as-home to consider the nature of home and how it has changed in recent decades.

In many fast-growing, developing economies there has been a wave of rapid urbanization. Millions of people in China have left behind the rural communities they were born into and relocated to cities. Millions more people across many parts of the world that are conflict-bound or subject to some of the worst effects of the climate crisis have left their homeland behind completely in search of a new life.

“For Sicilians living in Milan,” the report says, “the smartphone helps them to accept that Milan is the place where they reside, because they can simultaneously also remain in ‘their land’ (mia terra) of Sicily, the site of their memories and dreams.”

This ability to stay in touch with friends, family and old social networks can help people stay rooted in a sense of home via their smartphone, even if they are thousands of kilometres away.

That could be of particular benefit to older people, the report suggests. In its Global Report on Ageism, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs writes: “Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death.”

Smartphones have the potential to act as a portal through which socially isolated people can maintain contact with the outside world, with friends and family, too. In The Global Smartphone, this is illustrated by the example of a Japanese woman in her sixties, who told the researchers: “I think when we are elderly, it doesn’t mean that we have friends right next to us. So the smartphone might feel more precious to us (as we age) because it allows us to stay sociable.”