More Bad News About Smartphones – When Will We Heed the Warnings?

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Over the past few years, many of you have heard me and other professionals describe how smartphone use, and the technologically immersive culture in general, are associated with a multitude of negative outcomes. Whether it be sleep woes, increased anxiety, cyberbullying, rampant pornography exposure, or declining social skills, it is clear that the outcomes don’t look anything like the sexy, sophisticated commercials that tech companies like to use.

Yet although many of us have focused our attention on concerns about youth development, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reminds us that threats cut across all ages, but begin with our minds. Ever since the first iPhone was released in 2007, researchers have been looking at how smartphones are affecting our intellect, which roughly stated involves our ability to pay attention, retain/recall information, and problem-solve/reason. Although advertisements profess that these remarkable technological innovations will only make us smarter and more efficient, the evidence indicates quite the opposite. In the words of the WSJ author, “research suggests that as we grow more dependent on them, our intellect weakens.”

Although the article reviewed many findings, the major themes were as follows:

  • The presence of smartphones, even when turned off or not answered, is associated with poorer attention, sloppier work, and increased symptoms of anxiety (e.g., blood pressure spikes, nervous thoughts).
  • The closer in proximity the devices are, the more “brainpower” is decreased. For example, individuals performed best when phones were out of the room and worst when phones were in front of them (and when in the pocket or out of sight, performance was in the middle). One recent study indicated that when schools banned smartphones altogether, test scores increased the most, especially for the poorest students.
  • Even in brief conversations (e.g., 10 minutes or less), the presence of smartphones inhibits development of a sense of intimacy, trust, and empathy, especially when meaningful topics are discussed.
  • Smartphones and other devices inhibit encoding and recall of information. Dubbed the “Google effect,” the idea that information can be searched on the internet seems to unconsciously reduce the likelihood that people will remember information given to them.
  • People are largely unaware of the way in which smartphones create distractions that create a “brain drain”; individuals often deny that devices are associated with poorer outcomes even when data reveals otherwise.

As with a number of other articles and studies published in many well-respected journals and publications across the world, we might expect that there would be a reasonable response to an overwhelming body of evidence that our tech usage patterns must be altered or consequences will only become more dismal. Yet as we are learning, trends seem to be running contrary to what the advice begs us to consider. From an objective, rational sense, it is hard to understand how this would be the case if we truly value our health and well-being, and that of our youth.

But when it comes to smartphones, it appears that two major factors have impeded much progress in the short time they have taken over. One, the immediate experience, convenience, and “perception of security” that they provide appears to have trumped all other considerations, including that of whether they (and the related usage patterns) are actually “better” for our health and well-being. Although authors such as me might repeatedly point to serious concerns about their usage, the fact (as noted in the WSJ article) is that the average iPhone user looks at their device over 30,000 times in a year. What this means is that the device in your hand or your pocket ends up seeming more important to your life than gradual changes in the way you think, feel, move, act, and relate to others. Put another way, the more we use and depend on our devices, the more that we simply feel we can’t do without them, even if it is draining our brains and our bodies.

The second factor is that with increased dependence have come weak (albeit well-intentioned) recommendations and the noble yet ill-informed “free will” argument. In regard to the former, it is easy to forget that it was just a decade ago that most people didn’t have a smartphone at all; it was just a couple of decades ago that most people didn’t have any mobile device (and you should see the shock on students’ faces when I tell them this). For the generations of today, it seems almost implausible that life could have even survived before the dawn of Apple. But it did, and by many standards, it did so quite well. Yet with the rapid, dramatic infusion of tech dependence have come recommendations that are well-intended but frankly weak in substance, support, and reality-testing. Additionally, I have yet to have a parent describe a good reason that their youth needs a smartphone and is healthier, happier, and holier with one. I know some parents think I am overblowing concerns and some parents just like the convenience of the devices for their youth, but not a single one has tried to convince me that a smartphone is better for their kids. And yet, 80-85% of middle schoolers have one and kids continue to get them even younger.

In regard to the “free will” argument, I have heard multiple writers argue that we just have to “buck up” and make better decisions and not let the technology control us, but us take charge of the technology. Sounds great, and those that know me would be the first to say that I greatly value personal discipline, self-control, and taking control over our machines. But I have a question. How is the tech-self-control experiment working, especially for our youth? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is “horribly.”

It is not just me and the research saying this. It is parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and many other people I have spoken with that are strained at the seams in trying to deal with problems that are directly linked to tech use. The reason problems exist isn’t that many people don’t have good intent or don’t wish that their devices were assets, not drains. The reason is that we HUGELY underestimate the power of our unconscious and are way too prideful in thinking that we can have it all under control, and we teach our kids to do the same. Few of us believe that our 14 year olds are ready to drive. Why do we believe that they are ready to manage a device that is like a superhighway for their minds? As most any person who has struggled with a substance or behavioral addiction will tell you, if you bring it in the house and walk around with it in your hand or in your pocket, it is only a matter of time until you will yield to its temptation. Tech companies spend upwards of billions of dollars to make their products addictive; the idea that adults (and youth especially, with brains yet fully formed) should be able to just “summon their free will” and make it all better without making substantial, systemic changes is the same argument that is failing the obesity crisis right now.

In the end, though, we are being faced with questions about whether we are willing to make larger changes that allow for real progress. It is a question of whether parents will forego their worries and inconvenience about withholding and restricting devices from their youth in favor of their values and science. It is a question of whether schools will take a serious look at the research and make tech decisions based on evidence rather than convenience, marketing, and fears that they won’t keep up and students will leave. It is a question of whether our society as a whole will choose our health or our desires.

Ultimately, it is a question of what we all value most, and what we don’t. The choice is looming and the costs of our decisions (or non-decisions) will be great. I just hope that a revolution of sorts, a real harkening to the needs of health and humanity is on the way, because my kids and I are getting tired of seeing falsely hyped tech ads on TV without the fine print.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this article, confirming many of my suspicions. I just recently inherited a flip phone and I don’t answer incoming calls unless I’m specifically wanting to talk to somebody. I only carry it for emergencies and to have an easy way to dial home and check for voice mails to my landline. Maybe they should call them dumb phones.

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    • Thanks, Francesca, for taking the time to offer your thoughts. I laughed when I saw your comment about the “dumb phone”, but sadly the research is starting to look like this may be the case. As always, there is a certain percentage of people who use them well, but as they continue to utilize more methods that create distractions/anxiety, the choice of going back to a flip phone (or none at all, which is where I have been for almost 20 years) should be a real consideration. I love what the internet/email offers, but I just don’t want it consistently derailing intentional, focused thoughts and reflections. Even if a person uses them well, they can’t control how others use them, which means that incoming communications remain a challenge.

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  2. James, people can decide for themselves how much they do or don’t want to be using devices like smart phones.

    For myself I don’t care for such small devices. Hard to see, hard to operate. I like desk top computers with large displays and full sized keyboards. Maybe it is age, maybe it is just what I am used to.

    But you are acting like there are some maladies which people suffer from, caused by things like smart phones. The position you are trying to advocate is wrong.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. In regard to my position, I would simply say that I believe we should value our health and well-being more than convenience/accessibility, and if there are factors (such as smartphone use) that compromises us as individuals, we need to be aware of this. Adults will ultimately make choices of what they value the most, but I think it is especially important for parents to be well-informed given that the first 20 years of life (and all the development, including neurological) of our youth is something we can never get back. What I find interesting is that in just 10 years or so, we are protecting the “mobile industry” like we would protect our minds & bodies (which I do consider sacred). Regardless of how amazing the technology is, if the costs to ourselves, families, and communities are higher than the benefits (of the way they are currently being used), then it would indicate that changes need to occur.

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  3. I have to take issue with the research/thinking methodology involved with saying that smartphones themselves are the cause of smartphone ‘addiction’. Correlation does not imply causation, especially not in the simplistic way that the whole “smartphones are bad” crowd says it. I say the following as a young adult+ heavy internet and phone user myself: what if people are always glued to their phones because they’re broke and phones are a gateway into endless free of cost music and information? I do agree that the specifically informational and image based nature of what phones can show people can change their unconscious tho, in ways that people need awareness about. But who is the right authority to warn people? What should the warning be, exactly? This blog post has an undercurrent of authoritarianism in some ways.

    You can bet if I had disposable income, I would have hobbies, go on vacations or visit restaurants without caring about picking up my phone. The truth is the phone is a source of small hits of reward and pleasure, and small vacations from daily stress or from social anxiety that comes from interacting with people face to face when you’ve had a truckload of trauma. When faced with a boring work or school environment, of course people would rather reach for the phone. I don’t know if that makes any salient point about phones. See: rat park (famous experiment where rats with a social, positive, needs meeting environment chose to drink drugged water less.)
    http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comic/rat-park/

    I’m way more concerned with the way that phones are an opiate of the masses for being trapped in bad marriages, being in boring and miserable low paying jobs and schools, and seeing the country go downhill and treat so many of its members poorly. Smartphones are ultimately a symptom of other issues. That being said, I am glad the blogger here wrote about pornography and young kids having phones, because the mainstream liberals never talk about it but *preteens* are watching hardcore pornography, often involving violence and dehumanization these days and the effects are not good.

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    • Hi SurvivingtheSystem,

      Thanks for taking the time to provide thoughts on this subject. It spurred a few of my own. One, although you are correct that much of the past research regarding devices is correlational, this is changing, and the data coming out looks similar. Here is a link to an article of mine that describes a RCT looking at the challenges of using devices in the classroom when it comes to learning:

      http://www.stvincentevansville.org/app/files/public/1243/banning-computers-in-the-classroom.pdf

      In regard to your comment about using the phones to provide brief doses of enjoyment and/or goodness for those struggling with various matters, I understand what you are saying. There is no doubt that for the cost of smartphone/plan, the accessibility to an infinite number of experiences is unrivaled. But my worry is that although there is nothing necessarily wrong with getting reward and pleasure this way, I feel that it can stagnate the individual from seeking out other sources of offline enjoyment, pleasure, and community that might actually cost very little or nothing at all. We have small, wooded trails near our house that provide a free source of outdoor enjoyment/silence/reflection that are close enough to walk to, and much of my enjoyment comes from stepping just outside the house. Again, I realize that finances do limit other opportunities, but I also think that the hidden expenses of all this technology (including such things as direct TV and other electronic offers) adds up in a way that hinders other opportunities.

      On a personal note (up until recently getting a 2nd car due to our 7th child being born), we only had 1 car for 10 years and I don’t have a phone, any cable television, and anything besides internet access at home. The savings without all these things have been in the 10’s of thousands of dollars, and it is allowed financial freedom that would have not otherwise been the case. So, as I fully get what you are saying (and appreciate your note about the “opiate of the masses”), I just worry that devices on our hips might be stagnating, not activating us, as the commercials might say.

      Hope you have a good week. JFS

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    • Yes, it appears they are. And that should be hugely concerning to all of us. It is too callous to say that it is an industry without a conscious, but like most for-profit agencies, their number one goal is to make a profit and increase their market share. The problem is that the tech business directly affects people’s health and well-being, and it is leading to massive problems. In China, it was recently declared that internet addiction is the number one problem for adolescents, and the government has invested a tons of money in treatment facilities to address the issue (for better or worse). If we all don’t take this more seriously, it is only going to get worse. Hate to sound pessimistic, but the mad rush of the last 10 years to “keep up with tech trends” defies logic and thoughtfulness – it speaks of an industry that has created an incredibly-enticing product that is changing the landscape faster than anything in history, and it speaks of a population that can’t seem to control its own urges and desires.

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      • We’ve had great difficulty getting people to do their jobs properly at the state “hospital” where I work because they want to be on their phones all of the time. We were penalized for severe problems where people on the units weren’t properly monitored due to people talking on their phones or posting to Facebook in real time. People were harmed because our staff couldn’t turn loose of their damned phones. On top of this, phones in patient areas are HIPPA violations due to the fact that they have cameras on them. It’s been so bad that people were fired while they were still in new staff orientation because they found their phones to be more important than listening to the information that they needed to know to have a job at the “hospital”. They were fired on the spot and told to leave immediately. As a presenter at new employee orientation I’ve been instructed to report any person who is sleeping or who has their phone out while I am presenting. Our problems with phones just keep going on and on and getting larger and worse all the time. We’ve made rules that there are to be no phones on the units or in any patient areas and yet I witnessed an administrator walking down the hall with his phone out. People always have their phones on them.

        I was at home one evening on Facebook and happened to run onto a running commentary in real time between three employees who were posting to Facebook while they were supposed to be working. They were actually on three different units of the “hospital” and they were calling the “patients” names and one guy said that he wanted to slap the _ _ _ _ out of some of them. A second one responded that she wanted to get up and walk out because she was tired of putting up with the MF’s. This kind of behavior can lead to CMS shutting a hospital totally down, even if it is a state operated institution. Even the risk of being fired is not enough to make people leave their phones in their lockers or cars.

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          • Hey, you get no disagreement from me on this. It’s unbelievable and it puts people at risk, most importantly the “patients” and also the staff. And you are correct in that some of the staff do hate the very people who are in their supposed care.

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          • Unfortunately, you can’t uncover this hidden hatred in potential staff before you hire them.

            I am a proponent of doing something like Walmart does when people apply for a job. You have to fill out that questionnaire about what would you do if you were confronted with this situation or what would you do if you saw people doing such and such. It’s a tool to weed out people that you feel wouldn’t be the best people to hire for a particular position. Walmart has particular questions that they flag to see how people answer them because they feel these are crucial attitude questions. They base their hiring on the way people answer these particular questions.

            But, the “hospital” is run by the state and the answer I always get about doing this with potential employees is that it would cost too much money so they can’t do it. I think it costs much more money to still have paper applications but who am I to say, I’m just a former patient.

            We are doing better about the people we hire but we still make mistakes. The situation I described about Facebook took place about five years ago. It is a constant struggle to hire the best people. I’ve personally come to believe that the “hospital” is the place where we warehouse people. No real treatment is offered. We must find a replacement for this way of dealing with people. It is against human rights and civil rights to hold people in this place against their wills. I have a whole lot of questions and a whole lot of dissatisfaction and I don’t know where to turn to solve the problems. State “hospitals” are not the answer.

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        • Thanks, Stephen, for the point you are making here. I could add work productivity & ethics to the laundry list of concerns regarding mobile devices, and yet as there are so many other areas at play, this topic hardly sees the light of day (although I think you should write an article giving it some). The same issue is going on in schools all over the place, and administrators and teachers and parents often seem to “throw up their arms” and indicate as if we can’t really do anything about it. To some degree, as schools are spending massive amounts of $ to keep up with the trends while the data supporting these decisions has been disappointing at best (see this prior article I linked:
          http://www.stvincentevansville.org/app/files/public/1243/banning-computers-in-the-classroom.pdf), they are not making it easier on themselves. Yet ultimately, if school personnel and parents recognized, embraced, and acted on the problem, quick, sustainable gains could be made.

          Ultimately, I think we are going to get to a point in the next decade where we are either going to reach a point of societal crisis with all this, or there is going to be a real countercultural shift towards practices and policies that support health & being. I just worry that if the shift doesn’t occur, we are headed towards dire straits.

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          • I would have to say that I agree with you in everything that you state. I can’t imagine why an eight year old child needs a phone while they’re in school and yet every child of all of my friends have phones of their own, no matter what they’re age. The parents are not willing to set limits on most of this and I think that it’s because they don’t want to be seen as not being “up to date” with the trends taking place. One of the huge problems with all the kids having phones is that it allows bullying to be so much easier to do. Too many kids’ lives are miserable because the kids on their class and school have phones to send things to everyone to harass the unpopular kid.

            I also worry about what is going to happen if we don’t get some restraints on all this technology and its use.

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