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Let's Reminisce: Does your smartphone make you dumber?
By Jerry Lincecum
Nov 1, 2017
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I read something in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal that shocked me.  In a well-researched piece of journalism, Nicholas Carr argues that as we grow more dependent on devices like the iPhone, our intellect weakens.  In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I use a flip-phone and we have never owned a smartphone.  Carr’s article is entitled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds.”

To begin his article Carr asserts that the typical owner of an iPhone uses it 80 times a day, which adds up to almost 30,000 times in a year.  That statistic alone astounded me, but the worst shock was yet to come.  He went on to report this: “In a 2015 Gallup survey, more than half of iPhone users said that they couldn’t imagine life without the device.”  That was a prelude to mentioning the idea that these phones make their users anxious and their effects on our minds have been studied by scientists.

Carr reports that after a decade of study, a professor at UT-Austin named Adrian Ward has concluded that using a smartphone causes enough of a distraction to make it harder for the user to concentrate on solving a difficult problem.  Even hearing the phone ring at a time when you are unable to answer it is enough to raise your blood pressure and quicken your pulse. 

Is it possible to become so dependent on a smartphone that its mere presence might curtail one’s ability to use his intellectual ability?  Ward formulated this idea as a theory and, along with three colleagues, figured out a way to test it.  They recruited 520 undergrad students who used smartphones and gave them two standard tests. One test evaluated the students’ ability to concentrate or focus on a particular task; the other assessed their ability to solve an unfamiliar problem.  The only variable was the location of the students’ cellphones.

         

In both tests the worst scores were posted by those students whose phones were sitting in front of them on their desks.  The students who left their phones in a different room scored highest.  Scoring in the middle were the students who kept their phones with them in a pocket or bag (out of sight).  In interviews afterwards, almost all the students said their phones had not been a distraction; most insisted they had not even thought about the phones.  Ward says this means they didn’t recognize the fact that their phones had diminished their concentration and their problem-solving ability.

         

There is another study from the University of Arkansas which found that students who brought their smartphones to lecture classes scored a full letter grade lower than those who didn’t.  Another study found that when 91 secondary schools in Britain banned smartphones, their students’ scores went up substantially.

         

Here’s another smartphone issue: since it has become so easy to look up all kinds of information on one’s cellphone, there is evidence that we don’t bother trying to memorize or remember as many things.  Moreover, we have a tendency to confuse what we do remember with information we look up on the smartphone, giving ourselves “delusions of intelligence” and making us more gullible to “fake news.”

         

When Ward and his colleagues published their findings, they made this summary statement: “The integration of smartphones into daily life appears to cause a brain drain that diminishes some vital skills, such as learning, logical reasoning and creativity.”  He goes on to suggest that we should find it very disturbing to realize that a device can get inside our heads and diminish our thinking ability.  I agree wholeheartedly.

 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.