Smartphones give us instant access to vast amounts of information. They can provide the answer to almost any question with only a few taps on the screen. Having this ability allows us to learn and know just about whatever we want. However, this seemingly endless fount of knowledge makes memorisation nearly obsolete, and straightforward tasks like reading a map, using correct spelling, or performing simple math are becoming relics of the past.
In many ways, we depend on our smartphones more than we depend on our own brains, and because of this, many of us would be lost without them. Does this mean smartphones are making us dumb? Or is it just how we choose to use them that can make us less sharp? I’m sure the person who invented “smart” phones never imagined that the word “dumb” would eventually be associated with them, but it is an issue worth considering.
If you are above the age of 25, you probably still remember the phone numbers of some of your childhood friends. Before cell phones, having a landline meant typing in a phone number every time we wanted to call someone. Do you know any of your current friends’ phone numbers today? Most likely not. Is the lack of memorisation skills a sign we’re becoming less intelligent? Perhaps. But it is also likely that we’re not worse at memorisation, we just don’t have to memorise the same things anymore.
Where once we had to memorise phone numbers, addresses, video game cheat codes, and countless other random, trivial facts (what was the name of that actor who played that guy in that movie?), we can now just trust in Google, our phone contacts, and autocorrect. If you don’t have to spend mental energy on memorising all these countless details, it can save you some time and brain space to focus on other, (hopefully) more important things. It’s only when you use that extra time to play Crossy Road or Candy Crush that this begins to affect you negatively.
Anyone who grew up without smartphones probably talks about how “nobody knows how to have a real conversation anymore,” and how “nobody knows how to just enjoy an experience without being glued to their phone.” These are more than just your average “back in my day” ramblings. They are pretty darn true. Technology and social isolation go hand in hand. Thanks to texting and social media, you can get by for a surprisingly long time without actually having to talk to anyone. Don’t lie, you all have at least one person you haven’t actually spoken to outside of Facebook in years (even if you message them once a week). And even if you do find yourself in a social setting, you can easily isolate yourself by just staring into the black hole of your smartphone, and no one will bother you.
This new form of communication makes us less reliant on actual conversational skills. It makes us awkward in person, and overwhelmed in social settings. However, it does have its benefits. We all have those few people (or many) whom we wouldn’t keep in touch with at all if it weren’t for social media. Again, it’s about finding a balance. Force yourself to have more in-person communication. If you really want to talk to someone, call them or meet up for coffee. Social interactions are great for the brain, as studies have shown that anxiety levels increase after six hours of social isolation.
In addition to actually making us less social, smartphones have wreaked havoc on our attention spans. People find it extremely difficult to focus on one thing for more than 8 seconds without being distracted by a text, email, notification, or just the urge to pick up their phone and check Facebook or Instagram. This brain activity is called “butterfly brain” because we are constantly flitting from our phone to the TV, to our laptop, to Facebook, to a text message, back to the TV, etc. It leaves very little time for real, productive focus and makes it difficult to get anything meaningful done.
Having a short attention span isn’t always a bad thing, though. “A well functioning brain should wander every few minutes,” says Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York. “It makes us more creative and stops our brain from burning out. So don’t resist it.”
However, if you become distracted by your smartphone, it probably won’t just be a few minutes. It’s very easy to get sucked into your phone for longer than you intended, so be careful. If you’re going to allow yourself to become distracted, limit yourself to shorter periods of smartphone browsing, or resort to a different activity entirely.
So are smartphones making us stupid? They certainly have the potential to reduce how much we actually use our brains, and as they say, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” But smartphones are not all bad. They have the potential to enhance our lives and our minds to make us smarter, more productive, and more informed. Just ask “Sudden Clarity Clarence” how he feels about always having the internet at his fingertips.
Maybe your smartphone has turned you from binge-watching reality television to binge-listening to high quality, intellectual podcasts. Or maybe you don’t read as much as you used to because you are constantly on Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat. Smartphones can make us think less, or they could help us become more efficient in our thinking. The key is to let your phone assist you in using your brain, rather than prevent you from having to.
A hammer can destroy a building or build one. A smartphone is a tool just like any other, and it can either turn your brain to mush or increase your productivity and make your life easier. I for one like not having to print out directions every time I travel to a new place!