Your Smartphone, Your Brain, and What Can be Done About It

By Jim Tonkowich Published on November 8, 2017

In tech news: the new iPhone X is available! How great is that? So let’s have three … or possibly two … or, now that I think of it, one less than enthusiastic cheer.

For years I’ve answered, “How old are you?” with, “Old enough to remember when email was fun.” (Cue the fuzzy, buzzy dial-up modem sounds and then a cheerful, “You’ve got mail!”)

Now I’ve changed my answer: “I’m old enough to remember when smartphones were fun.”

But wait! Aren’t smartphones still fun? Hmmm. Read on and then you tell me.

We Love Our Smartphones

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr notes that the average person pulls out the smartphone about eighty times a day. Take out eight hours for sleep and that’s once every 20 minutes, more than 29,000 times a year.

Studies confirm that smartphones with their incessant beeping and buzzing make mental concentration difficult to impossible.

And why not? My rather sparsely populated iPhone has three email accounts, weather, phone, messages, music, camera, maps, Latin study helps, The Wall Street Journal, the Bible, books, magazines, breviary, Aquinas’ Summa Theologiea, prayers, Church documents, fly fishing and ski reports, recipes, podcasts and my favorite online wine source.

As Nicholas Carr writes, “We love our phones for good reasons. It’s hard to imagine another product that has provided so many useful functions in such a handy form.” Then he goes on,

But while our phones offer convenience and diversion, they also breed anxiety. Their extraordinary usefulness gives them an unprecedented hold on our attention and vast influence over our thinking and behavior. … Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.

Smartphones and Intellect

First and most obvious, we don’t have to remember anything. The phone remembers for us. The phone knows everyone’s phone number, tells me how to get anywhere, and warns me a week before my grandchildren’s birthdays. Why remember?

More than that, however, studies confirm that smartphones with their incessant beeping and buzzing make mental concentration difficult to impossible. “The division of attention,” writes Carr, “impedes reasoning and performance.”

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He cites a study in which undergraduates were given tests to measure their ability to focus and to solve unfamiliar problems. The variable was the physical location of their smartphones.

“In both tests,” he reports, “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 their pockets or bags came out in the middle. As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased.” Or at least it was dissipated.

Another study found that if students came to class with their smartphones, they could expect to score a full letter grade lower than those who left them behind.

The Effects of Screen Time

In another article, “Why Personal Tech is Depressing,” clinical psychology professor Stephen Ilardi points out the negative impact of smartphones and all on our emotional health.

As St. Paul said long ago, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

Ilardi cites a study in which undergraduates from around the world were asked to give up all screens for twenty-four hours. Ilardi writes, “Most students dropped out of the study in a matter of hours, and many reported symptoms of withdrawal associated with substance addiction.” That’s the bad news.

There’s also good news. “But those who pushed through the initial discomfort and completed the experiment, discovered a surprising array of benefits: greater calm, less fragmented attention, more meaningful conversations, deeper connections with friends and a greater sense of mindfulness.”

Carr comments,

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. Upgrading our gadgets won’t solve the problem. We need to give our minds more room to think. And that means putting some distance between ourselves and our phones.

Taking a Break From Technology

How do we do that? More and more I’m choosing to walk away from my smartphone. I don’t want it near me during my daily devotions, when I walk the dog, while cooking, at church, during meals, studying or anywhere near my bed. The email, messages and voice mails are always there when I come back. And since I like the idea a weekly Sabbath from technology, I’m trying Screen-Free Sundays.

Let me be clear, I’m not getting rid of my iPhone. In fact, I’m due for an upgrade. But I have a strong sense — and research confirms — that getting the thing under control is critical to wellbeing.

As St. Paul said long ago, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

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