Thanks to an incident involving a flooded ditch in which I came off rather the worse (for which read ‘soggier’) for wear, I have been without my iPhone – and as a result mobile access to the internet – for the last four days. It has forced me to evaluate how important a part of my life having a smartphone has become, and to cope with the withdrawal symptoms of being forcibly separated from it.

The verdict? It hasn’t been quite as bad as I first feared. But it’s still bad.

Smartphone ubiquity

A recent Ofcom report said that 27% of adults – and 47% of teenagers – now own smartphones. As the last two weeks have taught us – according to the Daily Mail, at least (enter sarcasm mode) – teens use their smartphones primarily to organise riots using social networking services such as Blackberry TwitFace. However, it appears that I am also one of an increasing number – more than one-third of smartphone users – who classify themselves as ‘highly addicted’ to their smartphone, using their handsets while socialising, eating or in the bathroom.

There are many reasons for the rapidly increasing adoption of smartphones. The launch of the increasingly versatile iPhone and its Android and Microsoft-powered competitors, improving coverage and speed of 3G networks, and the explosion of mobile-friendly social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter have led to a 40-fold increase in the use of mobile data services between 2007 and 2010, which is where smartphones come into their own against older style ‘dumb-phones’.

It was this liberating sense of mobile utility that first convinced me to purchase an iPhone 3 three years ago, and it – and its subsequent iPhone 4 replacement – have been a constant companion ever since. Indeed it has become my first point of reference whenever I want to find out the latest news and sports scores, to look for directions, or to update my status on Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare. It is also frequently used as an iPod substitute, a camera, a games machine and a means of recording and tracking my regular runs via its GPS capability. Occasionally I even use it to make and receive phone calls. (How quaint.) In short, my phone has become my 24/7 connection to the outside world, anywhere I can get a signal.

But am I actually addicted?

Where does ‘need’ end and ‘addiction’ begin?

That always-on feeling is something which I have increasingly taken for granted over the past three years, and which has been denied me over the last four days. I have in the past voluntarily gone for that long without using my iPhone – primarily to avoid expensive data roaming charges overseas  – but always in the knowledge that I could use it if I wanted to. Not having that option is an entirely different kettle of fish.

It looks like an antique now, but for a while the Nokia 7110 was the coolest phone ever

My immediate reaction to my non-functioning phone – other than to hurriedly put it in the airing cupboard in a bag full of uncooked rice and silica gel packets – was a sense of horror at the prospect of being dragged back a decade or more to a time when WAP was exotic and the coolest phone money could buy was the Nokia 7110 slider, as featured in The Matrix. (Yes, of course I had one.) I wasn’t waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of withdrawal symptoms, but I did initially describe it as feeling like my left hand had been cut off.

Three days on, I still stand by that sense of loss. I haven’t had some kind of epiphany where I have sworn to return to a simpler time and live closer to the land. The odds of me joining the ranks of the Amish remain vanishingly slim.

The fact is I’m still a news junkie. I want to know what’s happening in the world as soon as it happens. I want to know what the current score in the cricket is. I want to be able dash off a random thought on Twitter because I know my adoring followers could not possibly make it through the day without my sage words of wisdom.

Maybe it’s not such a crippling loss as amputating your hand, but it is like losing a finger. My phone is not essential to my day-to-fay functioning, but being without it does limit what I can do somewhat and I do miss it. ‘Addicted’ is perhaps too much of an evocative word, which evokes too negative connotations. Even ‘dependent’ is putting it too strongly. ‘Heavily reliant’ is perhaps closest to the mark.

I am no more addicted to my iPhone than I am to food. It is simply a fundamental part of my everyday life.

I am no more dependent on my iPhone than I am to my car. I could survive without it, but it is an essential part of my life without which routine tasks would be so much slower or more difficult to complete.

Am I heavily reliant on it? Yes. Just as I am heavily reliant on a broadband connection, or my asthma inhalers, or a desire to indulge in a spot of retail therapy every now and then.

If push came to shove, I could give it up any time I want. Honest. But the simple fact is I really don’t want to – not because of some all-consuming addiction but because it makes my life better and easier. What’s wrong with that?