The research on the harms of smartphone use and the benefits of putting them down is extensive. Here is a summary of the key findings, links to further information, and some concrete suggestions on how to limit the damage.
1. Smartphones are making us dumber.
Smartphones are changing the way we think and dumbing down our intellectual abilities in frightening ways.
In one 2017 study at the University of California in San Diego, 520 students were randomly divided into three groups and told they were going to take a series of tests designed to measure cognitive ability. One group was told to leave their smartphones in the lobby before being shown into the classroom where the tests were held. A second group was allowed to bring their smartphones with them, but asked to keep them in a bag or pocket. The third group placed their smartphones on their desks while they took their tests.
The test results were striking: students who had left their smartphones in the lobby performed significantly better on the intelligence tests than students who’d brought their phones into the classroom with them. Students who’d placed their phones on their desks performed the worst by far, even though those students reported afterwards that they hadn’t even been thinking about their phones during the tests. It seems that the very proximity of their smartphones lowered students’ mental abilities.
Other studies have found the same results: students do significantly better on tests when they cannot see their smartphones. Even when smartphones are turned off, their very presence, dampens students’ performance and ability. One 2017 study at the University of Arkansas even found that leaving their smartphones behind when they went to take a test was correlated with students earning a full letter grade higher on a test, compared with students who brought their phones into the testing site.
For adults, the dumbing-down of phones can be more difficult to measure. One 2015 British survey showed that adults concentrated less on difficult tasks and performed more sloppily when they heard their smartphones buzzing with notifications, even when they didn’t stop to check their phones. A 2010 study at McGill University in Montreal found that drivers who routinely use smartphone or other apps to navigate while driving, instead of relying on their own map-reading or memory, showed less brain activity and even less gray matter in the hippocampus region of their brains, an area that’s important for memory.
Phones make us dumber by distracting us too. Knowing that our phone has messages for us greatly reduces our ability to focus on work. Psychologist Daniel Levitin estimates that “being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, (while) and e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”
Suggestions: consider leaving your smartphone at home during work or school when you want to be at your mental best. If leaving your phone at home doesn’t seem feasible, try keeping it in out of sight, in a cloakroom, your car, or a locker.
2. Smartphones are making us sadder and more alienated.
Increased smartphone use is bringing much of our lives online, interacting via texts and social media instead of face to face human contact. Studies show that is making us sadder and more alienated.
Between 2000 and 2015, the number of teenagers who report getting together with their friends nearly every day fell by more than 40%, which much of that drop coming in the last few years, as smartphones have become more common (a key finding in the much discussed Atlantic Monthly article “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”) Over half of teens text each day with their friends, often incessantly. A third of teens send over 100 text messages each day. That doesn’t translate into deeper communication: only about a third of teens report regularly talking with their friends in person.
Texts are convenient, but they’re no substitute for real conversation. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Ourselves, documents the destructive nature of electronic communication and calls the way we interact with smartphones being alone, even when we’re ostensibly communicating with other people.
“Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly,” Prof. Turkle explains. “It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits…we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions. We dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.”
Electronic communication also allows us to pick and choose which ideas we engage in, isolating us from the broad marketplace of ideas and limiting viewpoints to filtered echo chambers.
Even when we do spend time face to face with other people, the mere presence of a smartphone can disrupt and downgrade our conversations. In a major 2014 study led by Prof. Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech, one hundred pairs of people were asked to have a conversation in a Washington DC cafe. Those couples who spoke in the presence of a smartphone – even when the phone was simply resting on the table – reported lower levels of empathy in their conversations and a greater sense of alienation. The results were particularly striking when the conversational partners were close friends, instead of acquaintances, who were much less satisfied with conversations rendered less meaningful by the presence of a smartphone.
Smartphones are also associated with feeling lonely and depressed. Teenagers who visit social networking sites daily but see their friends less frequently are more likely to agree with the sentiment “A lot of times I feel lonely” and “I often wish I had more good friends”. Rates of loneliness rose sharply in the early 2010s, and have remained high ever since. Among eighth graders, using social media often is associated with a 27% increase in depression. Among teens, spending three hours a day or more on electronic devices such as phones are 35% more likely to be suicidal than teens who use social media less often.
The correlation between social media and depression applies to adults too. One 2016 British survey found that 20% of respondents reported that interacting with friends via social media on electronic devices left them feeling depressed afterwards.
On the other hand, carving time out for non-electronic activities is associated with greater happiness and feelings of connectivity. Teens who spend time playing sports, attending religious services, and doing non-electronic activities such as homework have much lower levels of depression than their more electronic-obsessed peers.
Suggestions: carve out times when your phone is off and out of sight. When you meet friends for coffee or meals, consider declaring your table a phone-free zone for an hour or so. Specify times that your family will be phone-free. Be sure to schedule lots of non-phone activities for yourself and your family, when you can rest and recharge and connect without distraction.
3. Negative impact on your health.
One of the single greatest acts you can take for your health right now is limiting your smartphone use.
One casualty of smartphone use is sleep. Over 60% of 18 to 29 year olds report sleeping with their smartphones in their beds. Hearing the beeps and pings of constant updates all night has a deleterious effect on sleep. The number of teens who are sleep-deprived has grown rapidly along with increases in smartphone use: 57% more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991.
Even if we don’t bring our phones into bed, reading on smartphone and other screens at night wreaks havoc with our bodies’ internal clocks: the LED lights of electronic screens suppress our melatonin, making it harder to sleep when we’ve spent the evening gazing at a screen.
Professor Kevin Morgan, Director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Britain’s Loughborough University, points out that late-night screen time is qualitatively different from other activities. “Looking at screens engages you in intellectual activity in a way that is not at all like reading a book. It puts you in a state of alertness which is the last thing you want to be before going to bed.”
Smartphones are also associated with an increase in neck / back problems as we hunch over our phones and with higher levels of obesity as we eschew other activities in favor of staying home and gazing at our smartphones, and even with making it easier (through calorie-watching apps) to develop eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
When it comes to driving, apps, many of which encourage users to enter data or pictures while driving, have led to a huge leap in accidents, after years of decline. In the first six months of 2016 alone, there were over 17,770 highway deaths in the US, most resulting from distracted driving. Drivers were on their phones in 52% of all car crashes in the US in 2016.
Smartphones take a toll on our mental health, as well. One 2016 study at the University of Illinois found that high smartphone use was associated with lower levels of mental health. Anxiety and depression, particularly, were associated with heavy smartphone use.
For young children, the health risks of smartphones are huge. A 2017 study at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children found that every half hour of screen time babies and children under the age of three enjoyed increased the risk of delayed speech by 49%. Growing up in a home with heavy smartphone use can also delay kids’ emotional development. Dr. Jenny Radesky, a Boston-area physician, became concerned when she noticed an increasing number of parents glued to their phones instead of interacting with their children. When children learn language, Dr. Radesky has explained, “they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them. They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”
Suggestions: try to turn off your smartphone at least an hour before going to bed. When using a smartphone, try to hold it at eye-level or higher in order to minimize back and neck pain, and never use a hand-held smartphone while driving. As always, moderation is key; consider designating times during the day to be “phone-free”.
What Can We Do?
Nearly half of smartphone users in 2015 said they couldn’t imagine life without their phones, and that number has likely risen since then. With so much of school, work, and social life taking place online, it can feel impossible to disconnect completely. Yet given the real dangers of smartphones, finding time to unplug and disconnect is essential.
Even though I observe Shabbat and unplug completely for 25 hours each week, spending a whole day focused on other people without electronic distraction, I’ve come to realize that’s not enough. My husband and I already have a rule: no cellphones in our house between the hours of 7PM and 9 PM. We’ve started enforcing that much more strictly, mandating that everyone silence their phones and place them on a side table for those two hours. But after reading the literature on smartphone dangers, I want to go further. I’ve started turning my phone off an hour before bed, turning it off while driving, and telling friends that I’d like a no-phone rule when we meet. I’m also trying spend time with my kids with no phones in sight.
The benefits of limiting smartphone use are enormous. Putting down our phones can boost intelligence, raise grades, improve our mental and physical health and help us be happier and more connected with others. It’s one of the most powerful acts you can do to immediately improve your life.