These days, the typical person allocates an astonishing chunk of their lives to consuming media from an electronic device. According to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or interacting with media in some way. When the phone usage habits of 11,000 people were tabulated, individuals spent three hours and 15 minutes on their phones per day on average. A recent Deloitte survey found the average American checks their phone a whopping 47 times a day. (I can easily see me doing that.) Ever wonder what all that screen time is doing to your brain? The news is not good.
Just the Sight of Your Phone Decreases Your Brain Power
Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost. In this research, we test the ‘brain drain’ hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.”
Your Attentional Resources Are Limited
Your ability to pay attention is a limited resource and is much smaller than you might think. Because of this, much of your world goes unattended and unnoticed most of the time. You’re simply inattentionally blind to it. So, your brain learns to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to it – like your name.
Even when you’re focused on a different task, your ears perk up whenever you hear your name because your brain subconsciously notices and diverts attention to it. The same thing is happening with your phone. Additionally, when you try to ignore the pull of your smartphone, you’re expending mental effort to suppress the urge. This is also a distraction that makes you think less effectively.
Your Phone Makes You Less Capable, But You’re Not Aware of It
The data clearly shows that our ability to perform erodes if our phones are nearby. However, we don’t recognize the degradation of performance. In other words, research shows that we think we aren’t affected by our phones being around, but we are. In this way, mobile phones are similar to drunk driving or texting while driving. You think you can do it without consequence but aren’t aware that your ability is impaired until it impacts you negatively.
Here’s What You Can Do
We are left with the conclusion that constant connectivity throughout the day is a continual source of interruption and distraction even when we are not using our phones. It affects our ability to maintain attention density, and to think deeply about other things. I don’t think anyone can tell you what to do about this. Everyone is different, and you do have to make your life work. I can tell you what I’ve started doing:
- As much as possible, I put my phone out of sight. Usually in another room. This has helped my focus a lot.
- I don’t have social media apps on my phone. I only check social media from my computer.
- My phone is not in the room when I sleep. I use an old-fashioned alarm clock. When it’s important, I set two clocks.
- I don’t give out my cell phone number. All my business correspondence is done by email. My cell phone number just goes to family, and a few close friends. This simplifies things a lot.These strategies won’t work for everyone, but they may get you thinking. Here’s one more thing to think about: A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that just the presence of a cell phone can influence the quality of face-to-face conversations. When a phone was present, and the couple wasn’t using it, they reported lower relationship quality, diminished empathy, and less trust.I would add that when my phone is out, it affects my ability to listen.”