Comforting and contrary to expectation is the only way to describe the news that just being near your iPhone will harm your cognitive capacity (June 28 2017, HealthDay News). Adrian F. Ward from the University of Texas at Austin believes that his team have demonstrated that just the presence of your phone – not even fiddling with it, just the presence – is enough to use up “limited-capacity” cognitive resources.  Even if you struggle hard to avoid checking your phone, there is liable to be significant “brain-drain."

HealthDay News quote from Dr. Ward’s article in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (April 3, 2017) as follows:  "Our data suggest that the mere presence of consumers' own smartphones may further constrain their already limited cognitive capacity by taxing the attentional resources that reside at the core of both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence … Because consumers' smartphones are so frequently present, the mere presence effects observed in our experiments have the potential to influence consumer welfare across a wide range of contexts."

Super-users of their phones apparently will suffer most from brain drain. They are perhaps most easily distracted and as a result find it hardest to keep their mind on what they should.

Pinterest No Cell phones
Source: Pinterest No Cell phones

Smartphones have a lot to answer for, especially if you are a child and especially if you read the newspapers.  The latest in this doleful digest of digital damage suggests that putting children under two in front of a tablet or a cellphone screen will harm their speech. Not in our household I assure you. And according to a report in The Daily Telegraph (May 4, 2017) “Researchers from the University of Toronto and The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto found that every 30 minutes of screen time increased the risk of delayed speech by 49 per cent.”  It gets worse. Brain development and sleep can be a victim of the smart phone too. It’s also been argued in “a recent study by University College London found that screen time can also impact the sleep of infants, and possibly harm brain development.” That’s from The Daily Telegraph (April 13, 2017) again.

Head lice, I am not kidding you, are in here too. They have been linked to cellphones. According to another report in the The Daily Telegraph (July 4, 2017) “smartphones have been blamed for a dramatic rise in head lice among schoolchildren.” This is apparently because smart phones “encourage youngsters to gather round in groups, allowing the bugs to jump between heads.”  This startling news was the result of a study of more than 200 young people.  “Those owning a smartphone - or tablet - were more than twice as likely to be infested with lice.  Out of the 98 who did not have or use either type of device 29 (29.5 per cent) experienced head lice - compared to 65 of the 104 (62.5 per cent) who did." I promise you, I am not making this up.

Fortunately help is at hand.  In Japan a company has developed a cell phone case that will allow parents to control the way children use their smartphone. This case, reports The Telegraph (April 25, 2017), “can only be removed with a specific screwdriver, [and] allows parents to set time restrictions on their child’s smartphone usage via an accompanying app.” As if this were not more than enough the case also has its own motion detector (called OTOMOS). This will “deactivate the phone automatically when the child is walking, to prevent them from checking the devices while on the move.” That should sort out those pesky head lice.

Common sense seems increasingly the victim of these reports. Let me explain why I think so. My daughter tells me that she has a small proof that relationships between children and their adult relatives can be fostered using smartphones.  This is with the iPhone program called FaceTime, an app that allows you to video-call using Wi-Fi or your plan.  It’s free, or cheap, and very efficient.  My baby granddaughter hadn't seen her Spanish grandparents in over eight months, but she’d interacted with them on FaceTime most days. When she visited them last in Spain recently she toddled up to them in the airport and gave them a kiss and huge abrazo. Screen knowledge. She wasn’t anything as confident with some of her cousins whom she’d loved previously when she’d met them, but with whom she’d had no FaceTime interaction. This screen use, it looks like, is not encouraging cognitive drain or damage.  The reverse.

Wikimedia Commons
Books surrounded by smartphones
Source: Wikimedia Commons

New technologies are often said to be very dangerous things and seem to encourage fear, alarm, and opprobrium. They’re often said to be as dangerous for adults as children.  That’s until we get used to them.  It’s not so long ago – in fact a very long time ago – that writing and reading came under the fish eye.  The late historian Roy Porter gave a very funny lecture on the topic in 1998. He began with the ancient Greeks, with Plato and his dialogue the Phaedrus. That text has a story about the Egyptians and the invention of writing. “Thoth," he explains, offered “the gift of writing to King Thamus, claiming it will ‘make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories.’ The real effect, counters Thamus, will be the opposite: Writing ‘will implant forgetfulness in their souls [and] they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.’”

Not for a minute am I trying to mock the research that I’ve mentioned here. Each of the hypotheses has to be taken on their own merits. But this research into the villainy of cells phones is extraordinarily common and its reporting, so long as it is negative, is immensely popular in news.

Let’s finish with babies. Most parents and most grandparents use cellphone screens with their babies and their toddlers in a variety of manners.  Maybe this variety should be more factored in to the research. It’s not all Masha and The Bear, Peppa Pig, The Wiggles, or Playschool (just to name some of my favourites). It can also entail long interactive conversations with separated families. It can also entail dancing to Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop of the Feeling (and I often wish it didn't) and, I’m not kidding you again, it can be for acting up to Anna Fedorova playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.  Not all screens, you see, will really give you headlice.

About the Author

Peter Toohey

Peter Toohey, Ph.D., is a professor of classics at the University of Calgary, Canada, and the author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History.

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