The first handheld cellphone call was made 50 years ago, and since then these devices have become an essential multi-tool that helps us run our lives. But are they also altering the way our brains work?
Like many of us, I spend too much time on my phone. And, like many of us, I am acutely aware of – and often feel guilty about – this fact.
Sometimes, I'll leave it at the other end of the house, or turn it off, to use it less. But, sooner than I'd like to admit, I'll wind up walking down the hallway for something I need to do that I can only – or can do more efficiently – by phone. Paying a bill? Phone. Arranging a coffee date with a friend? Phone. Messaging family who live far away? Phone. Checking the weather, jotting down a story idea, taking a picture or video, creating a photo book, listening to a podcast, loading up driving directions, making a quick calculation, even turning on a torch? Phone, phone, phone.
One recent report found that adults in the US check their phones, on average, 344 times a day – once every four minutes – and spend almost three hours a day on their devices in total. The problem for many of us is that one quick phone-related task leads to a quick check of our email or social media feeds, and suddenly we've been sucked into endless scrolling.
It's a vicious circle. The more useful our phones become, the more we use them. The more we use them, the more we lay neural pathways in our brains that lead to pick up our phones for whatever task is at hand – and the more we feel an urge to check our phone even when we don't have to. Worries about specific aspects of our hyperconnected world – like social media and its increasingly hyper-realistic beauty filters – aside, what is our reliance on these devices doing to our brains? Is it all bad for us, or are there also some upsides?
As you might expect, with our societal dependence on devices increasing rapidly every year, the research struggles to keep up. What we do know is that the simple distraction of checking a phone or seeing a notification can have negative consequences. This isn't very surprising; we know that, in general, multitasking impairs memory and performance. One of the most dangerous examples is phone use while driving. One study found that merely speaking on the phone, not texting, was enough to make drivers slower to react on the road. It's true for everyday tasks that are less high-stakes, too. Simply hearing a notification “ding” made participants of another study perform far worse on a task – almost as badly as participants who were speaking or texting on the phone during the task.
It isn't just the use of a phone that has consequences – its mere presence can affect the way we think.
In one recent study, for example, researchers asked participants to either put their phones next to them so they were visible (like on a desk), nearby and out of sight (like in a bag or pocket), or in another room. Participants then completed a series of tasks to test their abilities to process and remember information, their problem-solving, and their focus.