Smartphone Use in America: Is It Contributing to Cognitive Decline?
I may not be a genius, yet I do believe I possess critical thinking ability. While my refusal to allow myself to be hijacked by the siren song lure and promise of smartphone dependence and over-reliance, I recognize that I’m likely in the minority. Still, a growing body of scientific evidence points to the possibility that smartphones, despite their usefulness, may be culprits in the dumbing down of America. In short, smartphones may be making us dumber.
Already, I can hear the cries of outrage and imagine the flurry of protests. After all, smartphones have made our lives simpler, brought technology to our fingertips (literally), erased geographic boundaries, connected us in ways never possible, and so much more.
Granted, the technology behind smartphones has done all this. Yet, there’s a dark side to such seeming benevolence. It manifests itself in insidious ways, resulting in an unhealthy dependence on that beckoning device we must carry with us always, so much so that we literally forget how to think for ourselves.
Factors researchers have uncovered to bolster the findings that Americans’ use of smartphones is responsible, at least in part, for a decline in cognition include:
Smartphone use results in decreased attention span.
Flicking from one message to another, furiously texting a reply or posting to social networks via smartphone causes more than a problem with aching and overused fingers and thumbs. Being unable to resist an incoming text, call or post notification and feeling the urge to instantly view and/or respond creates the perfect storm for disrupting attention. Indeed, heavy smartphone users touch their devices an average of 5,427 times daily, compared with 2,617 for average users. The top 10 percent of heavy users averaged 132 separate phone sessions daily, versus 76 for average users. No wonder so many obsessive smartphone users can’t sit quietly without reaching for their mobile device, or find actual real-life conversations boring and too slow. They’re used to instant gratification, the thrill of receiving a non-stop influx of must-see material. A 2015 study exploring Internet addiction, problematic mobile phone usage and cognitive failures in daily life found that among those with lower working memory and poorer attention control are less resistant to the distractions of digital media and technology and present higher problems with cognition as self-reported.
Users demonstrate an over-reliance on a digital information source.
It’s just too easy to rely on digitally-available information. The results are also so much quicker. Yet the costs to cognitive cognition from such over-reliance on information readily available on the Internet is high. One 2015 study found that smartphone users forego analytical thinking in favor of the easy and fast response they get when they allow their devices to do their thinking for them. In addition, concluded the researchers, those smartphone users who are “relatively less willing and/or able to engage effortlessly reasonable processes may compensate by relying on the Internet through their smartphones.”
Smartphone users are increasingly unable to think for themselves.
Smartphones offer a tantalizing and ever-increasing variety of functions, all designed to captivate and hook users into using the devices for all manner of reasons – even some they’re not consciously aware of. To wit, smartphones are the portable pocket communicator, a convenient venue for mapping, shopping, attractions, gaming, research, and all manner of requests. The lure is so persuasive and convincing that users flock toward the latest smartphone technology in a desire to get the latest, fastest, smartphone technology that offers the most and best apps. One of the negative consequences of such pervasive and obsessive smartphone use is that users are increasingly unable to think for themselves.
Constant smartphone use contributes to a lazy mind.
Why bother to use your brain when you can just Google whatever you want to know? Stumped about geography or state capitols or past Presidents or who won the Super Bowl a certain year? You know this stuff, but you tell yourself it’s so much quicker just to tap into the always available information repository through your smartphone. Researchers studying smartphone use found that the “checking habit” — “brief, repetitive inspection of dynamic content quickly accessible on the device” supports the conjecture that the devices are habit-forming and provide opportunity to make the devices both more personal and pervasive. A 2016 study found that mobile phone dependency negatively predicted attention and positively predicted depression among users.
Research finds that smartphone use highjacks concentration.
Even if users don’t immediately pick up their smartphones, the ringing and buzzing of the devices serves to break concentration and focus. Authors of a 2015 Florida State University study said that “although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance.”
The mere presence of smartphones nearby reduces cognitive capacity.
Frightening in its implications, 2017 research by Adrian Ward and colleagues in two experiments explored the “brain drain” hypothesis that just having a smartphone nearby “may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer available resources for other tasks, while also “undercutting cognitive performance.” The researchers found that even when smartphone users are successful in abstaining from attending to their smartphones, the presence of the devices alone was enough to diminish available cognitive capacity. Furthermore, these cognitive costs, they said, are highest for those with the highest dependence on smartphones. Specific cognitive capacity measures the researchers used were associated with capabilities that supported “fundamental processes such as learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”
Studies and surveys have proven that smartphones are highly distracting.
Whether driving and simultaneously trying to surreptitiously use a smartphone or being distracted by a mobile device while walking down the street oblivious to traffic and other dangers, there’s no discounting the fact that the mind simply cannot fully attend to two cognitive functions at the same time. Ditto the effect of smartphones on productivity at work – or performing any task that requires sustained and uninterrupted concentration and focus.
Anxiety and sleep problems are other common consequences of obsessive smartphone use.
One study found that depression, anxiety and problems with sleep may be consequences of or associated with excessive smartphone use. Specifically, researchers said that overuse of smartphones may lead to anxiety and/or depression, which in turn may lead to sleep problems. Other researchers found that adolescents’ nighttime excessive use of smartphones is a risk factor both for the development of sleep disturbance and depression. Women are particularly prone to smartphone addiction, leading to potential problems with depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Work engagement suffers with excessive smartphone use.
In addition to contributing to and aggravating sleep problems, excessive use of smartphones for work at night results in diminished work engagement the next morning, although researchers pointed out the lowered morning work engagement only seemed to apply to employees with low job control. There’s also evidence that work-home interference and burnout result from employees’ intensive use of smartphones.
Kane, S. (2018). Smartphone Use in America: Is It Contributing to Cognitive Decline?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/smartphone-use-in-america-is-it-contributing-to-cognitive-decline/