Are Smartphones Making Us Dumb?

Experts say smartphones help in many ways, but can negatively affect our brains

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Experts say smartphones are valuable tools but can also negatively affect our brains. (Published Friday, Nov 9, 2012)

    Smartphones are designed to make life easier, giving users instant access both to the world around them and the world at large, but experts warn that they could also negatively affect our brains.

    "When people ask me the question, you know, 'What is our technology, our phones, doing? Are they making us smarter or dumber?' I say, 'Yes, they are. They're making us smarter, and they're making us dumber,'" said Dr. Sandy Chapman, chief director for the Center for Brain Health in Dallas.

    Chapman, who has studied the effects of technology on the brain, said she believes smartphones help our brains work differently and are valuable tools. For instance, people don't have to remember phone numbers if they're stored in a contact list -- and that's a good thing.

    "The more phone numbers you store in your brain, the less likely you are to really think deeper thoughts, so that's when I say more isn't always better. This is very superficial information," said Chapman, adding that less phone-number memorization frees the brain to think deeper.

    But, on the flip side, the unrelenting pings, buzzes and beeps may throw the brain into overdrive.

    "It's making us dumber because, what it is impacting, it's really keeping us at this distracted level, so everything that we're thinking about tends to be more quick, more minute, less synthesized, and that's what's making us dumber," Chapman said.

    According to Nielsen research, 55.5 percent of mobile phone subscribers in the United States own smartphones. Adults ages 25 to 34 lead the pack at 74 percent. Teens ages 13 to 17 show the most dramatic increase in smartphone adoption, at 58 percent.

    But the lure of technology on the brain can be most devastating in the teen years, Chapman said.

    Southern Methodist University freshman Kyle Waldrep is of the smartphone generation. He got his first one when he was 14, for Christmas.

    "Immediately, I was addicted," he said.

    Like other college students, Waldrep uses his phone to text and email friends, take photos, keep his busy social calendar in check and look at headlines, stocks and sports statistics.

    "I'm a big sports guy, so I am on my phone looking at tennis match updates or the Mavericks, the Rangers, the Cowboys," he said. "I've now set my phone to get alerts, so it goes off even more when a game is going on. It's kind of become a part of me."

    Learning to manage usage of his smartphone became a necessity. This summer, when he was rigorously training to make the university's tennis team, he contracted West Nile virus and encephalitis, or swelling of the brain.

    "I wasn't able to think," he said. "I wasn't able to memorize anything or remember what was going on."

    Little things, such as where he parked his car, became difficult. Studying grew impossible, and he slept most of the day.

    Desperate to get focused and keep up in school, Waldrep had to change his relationship with his phone, putting it away for periods of time and turning it off while studying or in class.

    "I need all the focus I can get," he said.

    Most people can learn from his lesson, Chapman said.

    "If you will let your brain quiet down, it actually rejuvenates and works harder for you to solve problems that you didn't even know you could solve," she said. "If you keep it in this constant state of interruption -- 'any moment now' -- it never goes deep."

    Chapman advises Center for Brain Health clients to train themselves to put their phones away -- even if it's only for a few minutes at a time. She tells people to turn their phone off at night and use it as a tool when appropriate, but not to multitask with it.

    "Our technology tricks us into thinking that we're doing two things at once, but our brain quickly toggles back and forth between one or the other, and it's doing one," she said. "And it's doing everything at a worse level -- more errors, more risks, more shallow thinking."

    Waldrep said he realized that he was more productive when he was mindful of his smartphone usage and that his world was still waiting for him when he reconnected to his phone."

    "I do feel like an exception," he said. "But I feel like I'm an exception because of West Nile, almost because I have to have this extra focus. I can't get away with the outside interruption at all. It would severely affect my, you know, grades and my performance and schoolwork."