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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.