If you’re old enough to remember, think back to 20 years ago and how you spent your day. As a kid you probably spent a lot of time outdoors, playing board games, or even a few hours of video games here and there. As a teen you probably were hanging out with friends and tying up the entire household’s phone line to chat with your crush.
As an adult you looked up information in books and probably weren’t able to screen phone calls. Nowadays, each of these age groups has access to every bit of information on the planet, countless games and an endless stream of what everybody you know is doing in real time—whenever we want. Smartphones have drastically changed the way we interact with the world—in some ways for the better and, in other ways, not so much.
You might not consciously realize it, but our brains have become accustomed to our daily routines of texting, crushing candy and mindlessly scrolling Facebook on our phones. So much so that, even when we aren’t using our phones, our cognitive abilities decrease when our smartphones are around. Having your phone face down on the table next to you can stunt your brain power to a significant degree. Oh, what power these little machines have!
Researchers at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin published a study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research outlining how our smartphone’s mere presence can affect our brains. Nearly 800 participants were asked to complete a series of computer tasks that required their full, undivided attention. Each participant was randomly instructed to either keep their phone face down on the desk, in their pocket or bag, or in a separate room. All of the phones were set to silent mode.
The researchers discovered the group who had stored their phones in another room slightly outperformed the group whose phones were tucked away in their pockets on the given tests. The same group significantly outperformed those who had their phones right next to them on the desk. The results suggest that our smartphones have a serious hold on our cognition even when we aren’t using them.
“Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process—the process of requiring yourself to not think about something—uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain,” Adrian Ward, professor at the McCombs School, told Science Daily. “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”
The use of smartphones has led to other discoveries regarding their potential adverse effects, such as scrambling our concentration, neck injuries and keeping us awake at night. Kids using their phones in school can be problematic for concentration and cyberbullying. Staring at your phone all day can also affect your relationship with your partner (luckily, there are things you can do to prevent that from happening).
At the end of the day it seems that “too much of a good thing” is a real risk—even with our beloved smartphones.
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