Comment: Mobile apps are taking control of our lives

Are you having difficulty sleeping? Maybe exercising? Or managing your agenda? Well, “there’s an app for that.” If you have not heard that statement before, chances are you will soon.

An estimated 1.2 billion people were using mobile apps in 2012. Total downloads number between 56 billion and 82 billion worldwide. By 2017, about 4.4 billion people will be using apps.

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A large portion of these apps fall under the genre of “self-help apps,” mobile applications that aim to help you improve yourself — especially with regard to emotional or personal problems — without the help of others or professionals. Examples include apps that focus on fitness, exercise, meditation, productivity, managing relationships and breaking and creating habits, as well as others that focus on physical, mental and emotional improvement.

As two people who love working out but dislike pressures that come with exercising at the gym, we both have fitness training apps on our smartphones. The best part is the luxury and privacy of working out from home. As one friend put it: “Why go to a therapist or fitness expert when you can have your personal one 24/7 until your battery runs out?”

Curious, we ventured out onto the streets of Victoria to explore the cultural phenomenon of self-help apps and their effects. Although not everyone we spoke to knew the term “self-help app,” many used such apps on a daily basis.

We were surprised when people challenged our definition of self-help apps to include social media networks such as the “big three”: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It was argued that defining personal, physical, emotional and mental improvement is based on one’s perception and individual opinion. One cannot argue against that statement, and we were fascinated by this idea of social media apps — and essentially any app — as tooks to improve one’s well-being.

Is this redefining of what contributes to self-improvement a result of our increasing reliance and dependence on technology, in particular mobile media — cellphones, laptops and tablets?

A participant in a discussion forum we hosted hit the nail on the head when she said: “My world works well with everything at the slide of my finger. It has definitely made life a lot easier, but to some extent making my brain lazy.”

Such dependence on technology was a common theme among the people we interviewed. The controlling power of technology does not come without its detriments. We are all guilty of having our heads down at the dinner table, in a meeting or with a group of friends tapping away at our screens and keypads and being physically present but mentally and emotionally absent. It is a paradox of sorts; technology has connected the world and brings people together, but it has also managed to isolate us and keep us within a virtual mindset.

This technology is drawing people closer to knowledge but further from the people in their societal circles and community. When you come across a person who calls his iPhone “I-fey” because he says it’s his wife and phone put together, one cannot help but wonder what technology will have done to us 10 years from now.

In a time where people are looking for ease of access, instant gratification and are constantly tapping away on some gadget, who has time to go see a therapist, a trainer or a life coach? Apple, Android, Windows and Blackberry app stores have all the solutions at the swipe and tap of your finger. Self-help apps are ubiquitous and our research thus far is just the tip of the iceberg.

We are not advocating people replace the real McCoy for apps on their mobile media. We are simply saying in a world of growing technology, apps (and especially self-help apps) are slowly taking control.

Not convinced? “There’s an app for that.”

Tatenda Mhaka and Tessah Clark are working on master’s degrees in intercultural and international communication at Royal Roads University.

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