Can Smartphones Really Hurt More Than Help?

You are in the library, studying for a big exam tomorrow. Your phone is right next to you and  you are having a hard time paying attention to the material. You move your phone to the other side of the table. You still can’t pay attention, so you put it on Do Not Disturb mode and in your backpack. Next thing you know, it has been four hours and you got through a lot of your material. Image result for studying

We all have heard of the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.” How does this relate to smartphones, memory, and attention? A lot of research has been done since the the smartphone came out on how it could actually hurt your attention and memory. I remember thinking to myself on multiple occasions and even asking those I know if they think people had better memory before the smartphone came out versus after. It was when I came across an article by Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein (2017) that I kind of found my answer.

The article is primarily a summary of past research that has been done on this topic. Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein (2017) talk about two types of interruptions – endogenous and exogenous. Using the scenario above, an endogenous interruption is when you think about your phone while studying whereas an exogenous interruption is when you get a notification and start thinking about your phone. In other words, endogenous is thinking about your phone when you are doing a task while exogenous is when an environmental cue (e.g. a notification) captures your attention.

One study in particular relates to the scenario that you first read. In the first study done by Thornton et al. (2014) where they had participants perform two tasks (one simple and one hard) designed to measure executive function and attention. In this study, the researchers would “accidentally” leave either a notebook or a phone on the table while the participant performed the tasks. They found that participant’s performance was the same for the simpler tasks, but when it came to the difficult task, participants exposed to the phone on the table performed worse than participants exposed to the notebook. Replication studies were done and found very similar results – one study had participants put their own phones on the table. These studies basically found that endogenous interruptions had a very negative effect on participant’s attention span.Image result for attention

When it comes to smartphones and its effects on attention, the results are mixed. When studies use self-report and correlational data, the results show a negative results. However, when the research done is more controlled, positive relationship are found and even show smartphones help effectively filter out distractions.  This implies two possible explanations: (1) the self-reported data is biased and participants may not be giving accurate data since it is a fact that our own memory is not as reliable or (2) these findings of a positive relationship only work in controlled settings and not in the real-world.

The article then moves on to talk about how smartphones can affect memory. It is a common notion that smartphones reduce our need and/or ability to store information since information is made readily available to us, such as through Google. One study done by Sparrow et al. (2011) had participants type up trivia facts, but told half of the participants that they would be able to access the information later on while the other half were told that the information would be deleted soon. When asked to recall the facts, the second half of participants had better recollection of the facts versus the half that were told the information would be available later. This shows how believing that information is readily available can cause us to feel less inclined to encode and store information in long-term memory. However, one limitation could be the type of facts participants were given.

Research has also looked into how using GPS’s can negatively impact our memory because we are relying on it versus our own memory. One researcher even found in a simulation study that one participant knowingly took the bad route just because the GPS said to even though they knew it was wrong! So, why do we do this? One explanation could be that people rely on their phones so much there could be something going on that causes us to think the phone knows best even though we know the better route. I have noticed that even though people know exactly where they are going, they still depend on their phones. I would always ask them why they do this and their response is simply, “I don’t know, I just keep it on just in case.”

Image result for using phones

More recent research presented in the article has looked into how smartphones might impact our need for instant gratification. However, there is no definite conclusions that can be drawn and there is a need (no pun intended) for more research to be done. While smartphone use may effect our need for instant gratification, it could be that some people have a tendency towards more immediate gratification and, thus, use their smartphones more often. Currently, there is suspicion that smartphones are rewiring our brains in a way that seeks instant gratification, however, there is no longitudinal evidence that this is true. It could be that over time and from constant exposure to smartphones as humans, there could be rewiring of our brain. Maybe not to seek instant gratification, but possible more multitasking or filtering out distractions. Further research would have to be done to see if this is the case.

3 thoughts on “Can Smartphones Really Hurt More Than Help?

  1. caycay20

    This is a very well written and interesting blog post. I can also agree and have found myself on numerous occasions leave my phone on “screen time” or “do not disturb” and I have finished my work faster than if it was not. But even then my phone being right next to me can sometimes distract me. Personally, I do feel that smartphones do hurt us humans more than help, because we can do so much on them and we get conditioned to take advantage of the information that they provide for us. I do hope in the near future that there will be more studies on what smartphones are doing to humans brains, because the topic could be both useful and helpful to those who use them.

  2. abalgoyen

    This article pertains to our society so much right now and the way we act on a daily basis. I find myself giving myself breaks from homework on my phone or becoming incredibly distracted when I need to get something done because of my phone. In class, I find that I am way more engaged and remember the information from the lecture way more when I leave my phone in my backpack.

  3. angietc5

    I suppose it makes sense that at the end of the day we are kind of unsure of what the long term effects of smartphones will be. They’re fairly new and our generation is the first to grow up with them, and social media. That being said I definitely see how our brains are being rewired to seek instant gratification. I find myself refreshing Instagram constantly after I post, keeping up with my likes by the minute. I also find myself becoming frustrated when I don’t get a response to a text message within 15 minutes. If someone takes over an hour or so to answer a message, our generation assumes they don’t want to talk to you, or are uninterested. We expect things immediately, and I’m sure eventually that will bite us in the butt.

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