I was tempted to entitle this article “Smartphones are Making Dumb People.” However, “dumb” is not a politically correct word and might distract from the point that smartphones are damaging our cognitive abilities.
In Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking the Harvard Business Review reports on recent University of Chicago research that asked, “Do our smartphones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them—when they are simply nearby?”
Participants were set various mental challenges, but before completing these tasks, they “asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.”
The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity—on par with effects of lacking sleep.
These findings support my argument for creatives, students, pastors, and other knowledge workers scheduling Untouchable Days. But in some ways, it goes even further by demanding that we not only shut off our phones but put them out of sight and mind. As the report says:
The mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.
Why is even the mere presence of a smartphone so damaging to our cognitive abilities?
[The research shows that] the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names – they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention….Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.
The researchers recommend that “when our smartphones aren’t directly necessary, and when being fully cognitively available is important, setting aside a period of time to put them away—in another room—can be quite valuable.” For maximizing productivity they suggest that we should define windows of time when we are physically distanced from our phones, especially when working on projects requiring deeper thought. They even go to the extreme of calling for phones to be banned from meetings and not just banned from use. Crazy, eh?!