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Do Smart Phones Make Us Smarter?

Discover the research on cell phone usage and how it’s affecting our minds.

Two decades ago, the lives of millions of Americans were changed. Why? We bought a mobile phone. One decade ago, our lives were utterly transformed when millions of us bought a smartphone. It was a game-changer.

If you’re like most, you will consult your phone about 80 times a day, or almost 2,400 times a month, resulting in about 30,000 times a year. It’s crazy, but it’s front and center for many of us and the “screenagers” who attend our schools. It has become our mailbox, TV, teacher, consultant, photo album, newspaper, radio, roadmap, wristwatch, camera, board game, library, and party line. According to the Pew Research Center, university students put it in the same category as air and water. It’s a must. It’s like an appendage to their bodies.

Looking back, I can remember first going online about 25 years ago. Like many, I began to see how the internet could make us all smarter, offering access to so much information at our fingertips. It was a natural assumption. Today, scientists have begun to uncover something that is both intriguing and disconcerting. While we have greater access to knowledge than ever before, the smartphone in some ways is making us less smart. It negatively affects our intellect.

I am not kidding.

Not only do our smartphones impact the way we think, but they also reform our minds in very complex ways. Their influence continues long after we’ve put them away. In the words of Wall Street Journal writer Nicholas Carr, “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests our intellect weakens.”

Let’s Look at the Data

You’d be amazed to discover how much research has been done on cell phone usage and on how it’s affecting our minds and our lives in general. Inspired by journalist Nicholas Carr, let me summarize a few of the findings and suggest some practical corrections we can make.

Distraction and Concentration

For a decade, cognitive psychologist Adrian Ward, from the University of Texas has been studying the effects of smartphones and the Internet on our thoughts and our judgment. He has shown mounting evidence that using a smartphone or even having one nearby makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job. “The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.”

Blood Pressure and Angst

A 2015 study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when people’s phones vibrate or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, not only does their focus waver but their work gets sloppier. Further, in another study that same year, iPhone users showed that when their phone rang but they were unable to answer it, their blood pressure spiked, their pulse quickened and their problem-solving skills declined.

Brain Capacity

Researchers from UCSD and Disney gave 520 UCSD students two standard tests of intellectual acuity. One test measured “available cognitive capacity” and the other measured “fluid intelligence,” or a person’s ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem. The only variable in the experiment was the location of student’s phones. Some students were asked to place their phones in front of them on their desks; another group was told to stow their phones in their pockets or purses, and the third group was required to leave their phones in another room. The results were stunning. In both studies, the students whose phones were in view posted the lowest scores, while the ones whose phones were in another room posted the highest. As the phone’s proximity increased, the brainpower decreased.

Interpersonal Relationships and Trust

It’s not only our reasoning that suffers when phones are around. It is also our social skills and relationships. Since smartphones serve as constant reminders of all the people we could be talking with, they pull our minds away from those we’re actually with, in person. Our conversations become more shallow and less satisfying.

Want proof?

In a study done in the U.K at the University of Essex, subjects were divided into two groups and asked to converse for ten minutes. Half had their phone with them; the other half had no phone present. Then, the participants were tested for affinity, trust, and empathy. The mere presence of a phone “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” and reduced “the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”

So What Can We Do?

All the information our smartphones offer hasn’t necessarily made us smarter. At least not in a holistic sense. We have more data but the information often has little meaning. We have content without context. Dr. Arian Ward wrote, “the integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to have caused a “brain drain” that can lower such vital mental skills such as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.”

The answer is to enable ourselves and our students to balance the use of our phones. Yet, that’s easier said than done. For years, university students have considered their mobile device an “appendage to their body.” Prior to age 10, I believe adults (teachers, coaches, and parents) should mandate boundaries, leaving students time to do life without their devices.

However, I believe adolescents are better served if the idea comes from them. When I teach teens, I offer this kind of data (above) and start a conversation. Usually, they begin to draw the same conclusion: that we need margin and boundaries in our day. The key is to allow it to be their decision.

As I raised my two children, I would take them on a date and talk about the pros and cons of technology, then ask: What do you think we (our family) should do about this? Once they drew a conclusion, I’d write it down, then hold us all accountable to it.

Let’s make our technology our servant, not our master.

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