Not So Smart: How Your Smartphone is Making You Dumber

By Caitlin Schille

Parents, teachers, pediatricians, and just about anybody else who spends time with children rails about the evils of smartphones. They say, with research to back them up, that smartphones are responsible for kids getting less sleep and less quality sleep, developing fewer social skills, and spending less time being physically active. We can add one more thing to the list—research shows that smart phones affect your ability to concentrate—and this isn’t limited to easily distracted children.

Having your smartphone around when you’re trying to perform a cognitively difficult task compounds the difficulty of the task. When a phone vibrates or buzzes, it causes you to lose focus and be unable to do your best work. This kind of distraction affecting your ability to concentrate seems intuitive—it doesn’t seem much different than someone talking to you while you’re trying to complete a difficult problem. The difference is in the frequency—most people are constantly “plugged in” and regularly receiving text messages and other notifications on their smartphones. The easy solution is to turn your phone completely off. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it turns out that it doesn’t fix the problem.

Dr. Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Texas, studies smartphones and how they affect the brain. He found that even if your smart phone is completely off and out of reach, your ability to think and concentrate is still heavily reduced. One study showed that students whose smartphones were off and in another room had much better concentration and problem-solving skills than students whose smartphones were off but only face down on a desk or in a backpack or bag. It seems that the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” comes into play here. If you want to improve your concentration, you can’t just put your phone on silent—you’ve got to set it in a completely different room to get optimal brain performance.

According to Dr. Ward, even using a smartphone at all can make it more difficult to concentrate on a task. This shows just how far-reaching and entrenched the effects of smartphone usage are. He emphasizes that it’s not just notifications on our phones that distract us, it’s even simply knowing our smartphones are nearby that makes it more difficult to concentrate.

You can take steps to improve your concentration. As Dr. Ward’s research suggests, turn your phone off and place it in a different room if you need to concentrate on a particularly difficult task. You can also work to reduce your dependence on your smart phone in general. Keep it turned off or on silent and set a goal to only check it once every so many hours or once every so many minutes. Set a goal to only check social media sites once every day or once every so many days. Slowly lessening your dependence on your smartphone may help your long-term concentration. Your productivity will thank you.

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