How long can you go without using your phone?
The answer: not long enough.
We’re all guilty of spending way too much time on our smartphones. Like those “five more minutes” before bed that spiral into an Instagram deep dive. Don’t deny it, we’ve all ended up stalking someone’s cousin’s best friend’s wedding at 2 a.m. (Right?) Needless to say, too much of anything is harmful, but our phones tend to take it to the next degree.
As many of us already know, overusing our phones along with other digital devices can have harmful effects, both physically and mentally. To make matters worse researchers have discovered that phones may be negatively impacting us even when they’re not in use.
“You have an attention span of a goldfish” is generally considered to be a negative remark. While it may not be meant literally, as goldfish purportedly have an attention span of nine seconds, this term is generally used to connote a general lack of focus. (Sidebar: this plays into the etymology of the company’s name, BOLDFISH.)
Well, let’s not insult the goldfish. Recent studies have shown that in the digital era the average attention span of most people is a mere 8.25 seconds.
The study was conducted by Microsoft Corp. where the researchers surveyed over 2,000 individuals and studied the brain activity of 112 participants using electroencephalograms. “Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report stated.
On a positive note, the study also discovered that our ability to multitask has also improved during the digital takeover. The researchers theorized that the changes are the result of the brain’s ability to adapt to the changes in the digital world. We’ve gotten better at doing more than one thing at a time but we are more distracted than ever.
Laptops, smartphones, and digital devices have benefits for students inside and outside the classroom. However, a study published by the Journal of Educational Psychology discovered that students that have devices such as laptops or cellphones present during a lesson scored five percent lower or half a grade point on exams compared to students who didn’t use electronics. The study also found that students who were not using devices but were inside a device-permitting classroom scored lower due to the distraction from the electronics around them.
“Many dedicated students think they can divide their attention in the classroom without harming their academic success – but we found an insidious effect on exam performance and final grades,” Arnold Glass, a professor of Psychology at Rutgers University and the lead proponent of the research stated at a press release. “To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention – not only on themselves but for the whole class.”
In Katie Couric’s “America Inside Out,” Katie and her friend, world-renowned DJ Steve Aoki, visit California State University in Dominguez Hills to investigate the effects of technology on our ability to focus and our anxiety levels in an episode called “Your Brain on Tech.”
The first experiment explored how notifications coming from our devices can affect our anxiety levels. Electrodes were placed on Couric and Aoki’s finger to measure their heart rate while watching a video where every so often a notification pings. The monitor shows that the participants’ heart rate goes up with every ping which means that they experience a spike in anxiety every time a notification arrives.
In the second experiment, they measured Couric and Aoki’s brain activity in the prefrontal cortex to find out how much harder the brain has to work to focus when a phone is present. The two participants were asked to perform tasks; once without a phone and once with a phone nearby. Couric found it 25% harder to concentrate on her tasks with her phone while Aoki found it twice as hard. This means that even the mere presence of a device can already have a negative effect on our ability to pay attention to whatever we’re doing.
This claim is backed up by another study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and co-authors of the study conducted experiments involving approximately 800 smartphone users to measure how well people can complete tasks when they have their smartphones nearby even if they are not using them.
They found out that the participants who had their phones placed in another room significantly outperformed those who had their phones on the desk. These findings suggest that the presence of one’s phone reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning.
“Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources,” Ward said.
It was also discovered that it didn’t matter if the phone was turned on or off or whether it was lying face up or face down. Just having it within sight or within reach reduces the participant’s ability to perform tasks. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity,” said Ward.
So why do we find it difficult to put our phones down? And why is their presence alone so distracting?
Former Google executive Tristan Harris said that technology companies are built on a practice called attention economics, a management approach that treats human attention as a scarce commodity. On the other side of our devices, there are thousands of engineers that are working to keep people compulsively engaged using our brain ’s habit-forming tendencies as leverage. If you are wondering why you can’t stand being away from your phone, know this: it’s no accident.
With all that said, let’s not treat technology as an evil force entirely. Technology is still a good thing — we just have to be mindful on how we use it so it doesn’t take over our lives. Moderation is key and being aware of the dangers of your device is important. When you know you need to give your undivided attention to a task, placing your phone in another room can be a great solution to enhance your attention span.