Opportunity costs are most often talked about in economics, where they’re used to weigh up investment decisions. Will this company get a greater return if it buys new machinery or if it increases staff wages?
But we all make choices that have opportunity costs every day, sometimes hundreds of times a day. And these include the ways we use our phones.
Every time we pick up our smartphones, there are opportunity costs in doing so. If we are using our phones to carry out a task for which it is not the best tool, the opportunity cost is the gap in efficiency or the difference in the quality of the outcome.
Over years this can add up to a huge amount of unnecessary effort or thousands of missed opportunities.
If we allow ourselves passively to consume content served up by an algorithm, we’ve traded the satisfaction or education we could have gained by spending that time proactively teaching ourselves something of our own choosing.
Every time we message our friends, we are missing out on an opportunity to practise our verbal or physical communication skills. More importantly, if we only ever communicate via text we are passing up a chance to deepen our relationships. There is a wealth of evidence that suggests meaningful personal connections are closely correlated with mental well-being. Messaging is highly convenient, but there are opportunity costs.
We are constantly making trade-offs without stopping to think about them.
We’re more likely to consider these opportunity costs if we have been taught or prompted to do so. These prompts might come from ‘moments of friction’ that give us a chance to reflect. Or they might come from parents, teachers or role models.
But if our access to role models or education or aspiration is not equal, then the likelihood we’ll consider the costs of using our smartphones won’t be equal either – another way in which smartphone use and its consequences are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities.