Why smartphones are making us less smart

Smartphones: Millions of people may be suffering from ‘digital dementia’ 

Using our smartphones is often an addiction … and like most addicts, we don’t realise just how dependent we’ve become on our technological fix.

Of course, they are useful but there is also a darker – perhaps we’ll call it grey instead so it doesn’t sound too sinister – side to our mobile phones which are having a lasting impact on our brains.

And it’s this … our smartphones are, in some ways, making us stupid. I’ll give you an example and I doubt many of you will say you don’t do this. Someone wants to give you their phone number. Quick as a flash, the fingers and thumbs will be at work keying it into your phone. Gone are the days where we’d write it down or, God forbid, actually remember it. This means we are eroding our memory skills. If I was talking to a group during a presentation and I gave them a random seven-figure number now – say 6497234 – and then asked them five minutes later to recall the number and say it out loud how many do you think would remember it? Very few. Perhaps, ironically, only the technophobes.

You could even try it at home with your family’s smartphone users. Give them the number twice, tell them it’s important, and then ask them to recall it five minutes later.

If they can’t then they could be suffering from Digital Dementia, a brilliant phrase introduced to the world by neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer to describe an overuse of digital technology resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities. He believes that short term memory pathways start to deteriorate from underuse if we overuse technology and once this sets in then it will be with you for life.

Look at the world around us. Sit in a café and see how many people there are on their mobile phones, how many people walking past are on phones, how many people travelling past on buses or in taxis are on phones. Our phones are taking over our lives and, although some of us realise it, we are unlikely to change and the reason for this is because we’ve become addicts and we don’t know it.

It’s said that alcoholics are the last to realise they are alcoholics when everyone around them – their friends and relatives – are all too powerfully aware. They often change when they reach some kind of crossroads in their lives – usually a crisis such as a serious health scare – and then they try to do something about it.

A force for good

The big problem with smartphones is that they are ultimately such a force for good – our window to the world and a massive help in our daily lives – that the detrimental impact they’re having on our minds goes way under our conscious radars. We won’t see the potential pitfalls and how they are eroding our mental dexterity. A great example is 10 friends who went out for an evening meal. The bill came to £360 – it was a particularly good meal – and 3 of the diners had to get their Smartphones out to work out their part of the bill which was quite simply £360 divided by 10. By the way, the answer’s £36 for those scrabbling around for their mobile phones.

This addiction and its impact on our minds will only get worse. How many parents are totally exasperated by their children on their phones day and night?

The time has come to make a stand – ban smartphones from the bedroom, mealtimes and at school. And how many parents will now roll their eyes while reading this fearing that trying to bring in these bans is a lost cause.

There is a new generation of young people now entering the world of work who will have their smartphones between their hands and their keyboards their addiction is so strong and that surely is a serious distraction from what they should be doing. Even at a gym, you’ll see people staring at their phones while exercising and it makes you wonder if that means they’re automatically putting less effort in as their concentration is being diluted by their smartphones.

If you’re chatting to someone and they have their phone in their hand or even on the table do you, perhaps even subconsciously, feel threatened by it and that you are somehow not as important as that small yet smart device.

So beware and also be aware that digital dementia is costing us basic mind and memory skills. In short, we are outsourcing our brains to our Smart devices and losing the ability do some things that we used to take for granted.

And once those skills have gone, they’ve gone for good.

The Mindfulness Craze: The Benefits & Getting Started

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a process of purposefully cultivating non-judgemental attention to experiences in the present moment which can be achieved through many different practices including meditation. 

Professor Mark Williams from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says that “it’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’.” Living ‘in our heads’ can often lead to rumination and worries about the future – a common factor in the onset of mental health problems. As such, mindfulness techniques are commonly used in areas of mental health treatment (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to detract people’s attention away from the future, instead, bringing their attention firmly into the present (NHS, 2019).  It is time to get started, our minds are phenomenal parts of us. You keep your body fit, so let’s get our minds fit too.

Awareness of this kind helps us spot signs of anxiety and stress earlier on and deal with them more effectively. Uncertainty about the future and the lack of control that comes with it can often provoke a great deal of anxiety, especially in young people whose brains are still underdeveloped in many areas of emotion regulation. As such, focusing on the present has a wide range of benefits and an increasing number of applications, beyond mental wellbeing.

Modern applications of mindfulness and its benefits

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to treat the chronically ill. Since then, the application of similar mindfulness programs has extended into medicine, schools, prisons, hospitals and other government and business environments. Evidence from numerous meta-analyses indicates that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can have a significantly positive impact on reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptomology (Kabat-Zinn, University of Sussex, 2003). 

Some of the best athletes in the world turn to meditation to increase their focus, calm their nerves and reduce distractions, including NBA basketball players LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Meditation can generate “flow” or a state of total focus on the current task (Aherne, Moran, & Lonsdale, 2011; Kee & Wang, 2008) and often enhance performance. You don’t have to be a pro-athlete to reap the benefits of mindfulness; these techniques are widely applicable to your business world; key business leaders and advocates of mindfulness include Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has aggregated some empirically supported benefits of mindfulness including improved stress management, emotional intelligence (EQ), improved working memory, greater emotional control and higher relationship satisfaction. Sound interested? Here’s how you can get started with mindfulness:

How can we more mindful? 

  • Sitting peacefully and breathing through the nose and out of the mouth to regulate breathing. If you feel your mind drifting, touch the floor or look at the room around you to bring yourself back into the present moment.
  • Try mindful colouring or mindful exercises such as walking and running.
  • We would recommend downloading the Headspace app or visiting their website which will help guide you through mindful meditation and help you get started.

Trying these techniques for just 10 minutes a day for a month or so, to vastly improve your wellbeing, mood and performance, for your work life, staying fit and well and for your relationships – helping you feel your best and perform your best!

Do please share, and get in touch with us at www.7milesaminute.com for further support, executive coaching @7milesaminute. Good luck!