You don’t always need a study to tell you a hunch is right. Sometimes you just know. But it’s always great to have studies that make it crystal clear that you’re correct. In the case of omnipresent smartphones, we now have a number of studies to confirm what many of us have thought for a long time.
It’s impossible to go anywhere today and not see people peeking down at the glowing screens cupped in their hands, or hunched over a table texting away feverishly as the world around them buzzes by. At restaurants, at churches, at parties, in the parks, at the stores, at the gym, at the café, in the cars (while driving), in restrooms(!), at homes. The smartphone is everywhere. Doesn’t it strike you as odd?
Throughout the day, one-on-one conversation is always interrupted by a buzz or ring emanating from these remarkable devices. What’s concerning is the little self-control people have to simply ignore them and wait for a more appropriate time to check. It’s not just a question of age. Teenagers and adults appear equally under the smartphone’s spell. It’s as if the devices have taken over the minds of their owners and are becoming ever-more embedded into people’s daily lives. And it’s not just the smartphone in the pocket anymore. “Smart watches” now bring it all even closer. Where does it end? In what other ways can we roll out the red carpet for constant interruptions and distractions? How can this be a net positive for civilization? Blaise Pascal, and far more recently Cardinal Robert Sarah in The Power of Silence, warn about the hazards of noise and distractions in our daily lives, especially in our relationship with God.
The anecdotal concerns outlined here have the support of a number of studies. A recent article entitled “How Smartphones Hijack our Minds” by Nicholas Carr (appearing in The Wall Street Journal) should raise red flags and, hopefully, result in honest reflection over the pros and cons of these devices. Carr marshals numerous studies to demonstrate the deleterious effects smartphones have on people’s ability to think, problem solve, remember and interact with others. The article’s overarching question is: “So what happens to our minds when we allow a single tool such dominion over our perception and cognition?”
A 2015 Journal of Experimental Psychology study, involving 166 subjects, found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers, and their work gets sloppier–whether they check the phone or not.
Not too surprising, right?
Another study was conducted by Dr. Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas. The study,
recruited 250 undergraduate students at UCSD and gave them two standard tests of intellectual acuity. One test gauged ‘available cognitive capacity,’ a measure of how fully a person’s mind can focus on a particular task. The second assessed ‘fluid intelligence,’ a person’s ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem. The only variable in the experiment was the location of the subject’s smartphones. Some of the students were asked to place their phones in front of them on their desks; others were told to stow their phones in their pockets or handbags; still others were required to leave their phones in a different room.
The results were striking. In both tests, the subjects whose phones were in view posted the worst scores, while those who left their phones in a different room did the best. The students who kept their phones in pockets or bags came out in the middle. As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased.
Dr. Ward’s conclusion?
“‘Integration of smartphones into daily life’ appears to cause a ‘brain drain’ that can diminish such vital mental skills as ‘learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.'”
Carr makes the point that reasoning skills aren’t the only area that take a hit from over-reliance on smartphones.
Because smartphones are constant reminders of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, they pull at our minds when we’re talking with people in person, leaving our conversations shallower and less satisfying.
The smartphone phenomenon is truly revolutionary and stands out among technological innovations. The remarkable number of things this portable device can do makes it quite different from the introduction of the radio, television, personal computer or even the Internet. Continues Carr,
It [the smartphone] is an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what Dr. Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it is part of our surroundings–which it always is.
When we constrict our capacity for reasoning and recall or transfer those skills to a gadget, we sacrifice our ability to turn information into knowledge. We get the data but lose the meaning. … We need to give our minds more room to think. And that means putting some distance between ourselves and our phones.
The problem is, society is moving in the opposite direction. Instead of “putting some distance” we’re closing the little gap that remains between our minds and our devices.