Phones nowadays are not simply the modes of communication anymore, they’re compact and sophisticated computers. The world has gone digital, and most children growing up today have no sense of what it is like to live without being connected. The concept of being offline is essentially a punishment, and the age at which youngsters start using these devices is gradually decreasing. Despite the ubiquity of this technology, though, we still don’t know some of the ramifications about this cultural evolution, because the research, let alone the technology itself, is so new. But we are learning more about how our psychology is being affected by phones, and here is a list of ten of the most surprising changes.
In 2009 the Personal Finance Education Group found that children get their first cellphones at an average age of eight. In 2013 uSwitch.com found that the average age was 11, but almost one in ten received their first phone by age five. Another 2013 study by MobilePhoneChecker.co.uk found that the average age was seven. Whatever the number may in fact be, we know some of the obvious perils of talking on the phone. For example, texting while driving is incredibly dangerous, yet some people do it at the risk of themselves and others.
In order to understand the full spectrum of attitudinal and psychological changes our digital society is facing, here is a list of studies that demonstrate our misconceptions towards smartphones and how we use them.
1) Taking lots of pictures won’t make you remember more
The misconception: “The more pictures I take, the more I’ll be able to remember the events I took!”
The reality: “What the hell is that from?” / “When did I take that picture again…?” (you gotta read the study for that)
You can look at the study here, but this quote is very clear:
If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.
2) Smartphones don’t motivate you to do physical exercise
The Misconception: “Now that there are exercise apps, I’ll finally be able to work out as if I had my very own personal trainer!”
The reality: “Hey look – an open bag of Cheetoh’s!”
The 25 best fitness apps? In the time it takes me to read this and try out some apps, I could actually complete a workout. If you really can’t think of anything, just go for a run or do some push-ups. Something is better than nothing, and the science says that if you’re using your smartphone, you might be hindering your chances of getting a good workout, just like being a couch potato.
3) Overheard phone calls make it harder to concentrate
The misconception: “Just tune the conversation out – no harm, no foul.”
The reality: Even if you try to tune it out, it’s still harder to focus on whatever you’re doing.
This is noise pollution on a whole new level. It’s one thing to listen to music or hear two people conversing; but when your brain actually has to fill in the blanks and try to seek patterns in peripheral information that you’re not trying to pay attention, your brain doesn’t have as much faculties to focus 100% on whatever you’re intending to focus on. A 2010 study showed that hearing only half of the conversation distracts us, and a 2013 study found that it’s indeed more distracting than background talking.
4) It’s getting harder to read people’s Emotions
The misconception: “It’s amazing to see the variety of faces of people from around the world, in all their glorious expressions of emotion and…”
The reality: “Is he smiling… or crying…?”
Imagine every picture you saw was as emotionally ambiguous as the Mona Lisa. Is she happy? Is she sad? This ambiguity is becoming more prevalent as smartphone usage increases, and it was the subject of a fascinating study from the UCLA (bold is mine):
The psychologists studied two sets of sixth-graders [. . .] 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school. (The group of 54 would attend the camp later, after the study was conducted.)
The camp doesn’t allow students to use electronic devices — a policy that many students found to be challenging for the first couple of days. [. . .]
At the beginning and end of the study, both groups of students were evaluated for their ability to recognize other people’s emotions in photos and videos. The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings. [. . .] They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters’ emotions. [ . . .]
The children who had been at the camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other nonverbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.
5) Texting while walking makes you slow down and swerve
The misconception: “I’m totally careful when I text, honest!”
The reality: “Hey, watch where you’re–!” *water fountain*
Sure it might not seem like a big deal, but thousands of people get into accidents while texting every year. If it’s not from falling off of train platforms or into public water fountains, it’s getting hit by a truck, or a bus. So when researchers from the University of Queensland say “cognitive distraction, altered mechanical demands, and the reduced visual field associated with texting are likely to have [a negative] impact,” keep in mind that it could be the difference between life and death. It’s a dangerous world out there, especially if you’re walking into traffic with your head down.
6) We don’t care about privacy so much anymore
The misconception: “I understand the value of personal privacy and the freedom to use my technology as I please.”
The reality: “Well… I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide. Do you?”
This is great news for the NSA. With people so willing to give up their privacy rights, we’re allowing apps to know exactly where we are, we’re skipping through complex contracts that may exploit our private information, and we’re weakening some of the institutions that keep us democratic. You know, things like… free press. But who cares, right? According to researchers from Tel Aviv University, we’re gradually losing our concerns about these issues:
“[Smartphone users] are more likely [than conventional phone users] to reveal private information in public spaces, and less likely to believe that their digital conversations are irritating to those around them.”
As we know from #3 above, the second part of the statement is wrong. And as I touched on above, the first part of the statement is alarming. If you really don’t care about digital privacy… then why don’t you tell me your email address and password?
7) Smartphones don’t connect you more to others
The misconception: “Now that I have a phone, I’ll be connected to everyone forever!”
The reality: “I wonder what my friend’s doing now? Whatever – angry birds!”
First of all, a significant amount of our waking time is spent just checking our phones (for messages, the time, news, etc). Of course, we say it’s “just a habit,” instead of calling it what it really is: an addiction. Why? Probably because we are unaware of how often we check our phones, trying to fill in 20-second elevator rides with a chance of stimulation. As a study from 2011 found, our attachment to our phones isn’t so much about staying connected with others, but staying entertained.
But doesn’t our ability to connect with others make us more likely to do so? No, of course not. Didn’t you read #2 above? Science Daily says this about a 2012 study from the University of Maryland:
The researchers found that after a short period of cellphone use, subjects were less inclined to volunteer for community service when asked, compared to control-group counterparts. Talking on a cell phone reduces the desire to connect with others, they explain. [. . .]
The authors cited previous research in explaining a root cause of their findings: “The cellphone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong.” This results in reducing one’s desire to connect with others or to engage in empathic and prosocial behavior.
Just like how exercise apps make us less likely to work out, the greatest device ever invented to connect people from a distance has lowered our desire to use it for that very reason. Which leads me into the bedroom.
8) Keeping a phone by your bed is bad for your sleep
The misconception: “I need my phone by my bed, or else I can’t sleep.”
The reality: “Well… just one last tweet before bed. After this one…”
Perhaps it’s from the buzzing sounds of getting a text or an email, or maybe it’s the mere fact that you know you may be contacted at any moment. Regardless of the reason why, research very clearly shows that keeping a phone by your bed reduces the quality of your sleep. In fact, Mayo Clinic provides yet another example of why it’s harmful:
Smartphones and tablets can make for sleep-disrupting bedfellows. One cause is believed to be the bright light-emitting diodes that allow the use of mobile devices in dimly lit rooms; the light exposure can interfere with melatonin, a hormone that helps control the natural sleep-wake cycle.
With that said, I should admit my hypocrisy – I sleep with the phone by my bed, since I use it as alarm clock. But hopefully I can stop this in the future, because a reduction in a quality of sleep can be seriously detrimental to both health and daily productivity. This is why it’s also slightly worrying that more travelers are bringing their tablets, computers, etc. on vacations. It’s nice that there is free Wifi in your vacation spot, but if you can’t relax even on your off time, then what’s the point? Working on the beach is still working.
9) Texting is bad for your physical health
The misconception: “Look how fast I can type and send these texts…”
The reality: “Wow, I am seriously getting old or something…”
Is it any surprise that smartphones are used more by younger people than older? Not really. But we seem to forget the implications of that fact. Since this first generation to grow up with smartphones, the detrimental effects of over-usage simply can’t be seen in older individuals. Unfortunately for people who have the heads down in their phones, they may soon find that they complain about the same pains that their grandparents complain about, at a much younger age. From Forbes:
It takes time [. . .] for awareness of a new condition to spread throughout the medical community. Some doctors who have never heard of “text neck” don’t think to ask patients with neck pain about their phone or computer habits. [. . .]
A 2011 study [. . .] found that 53 percent of mobile phone users suffer numbness or neck aches. Another [study. . .] discovered that 83 percent of subjects reported some hand and neck pain during texting — but also displayed other signs of tension, like holding their breath and increased heart rates. [. . .]
The physical stress of texting adds to the accumulated buildup of pressure in neck muscles already strained by the amount of time many of us spend in a flexed posture while sitting at desktop computers. Holding your head in such a posture can add up to 30 pounds of extra weight on your upper vertebrae which, in addition to straining the upper fibers of your trapezius muscles, can pull your spine out of alignment.
As far as neck pain goes, it really comes down to simple physics. The further down your head slumps while looking at your phone, the more weight you are putting on your neck, and the worse it is for your health. If everyone would just hold their phones up higher when they used them, it wouldn’t be such an issue. Unfortunately, we’re lazy, and don’t want to hold a 2-pound device up for a long time.
10) Selfies don’t make you more confident
The misconception: “Great, now everyone can tell me how great I look!”
The reality: “OMG! Why isn’t everyone telling me how great I look?? Maybe I should just send one more…”
It’s not necessarily the act of taking a selfie that’s psychologically harmful, but the feedback that comes from it. Public display creates an opportunity for which emotions can be manipulated and attitudes can be formed – attitudes such as “I’m ugly,” or “no one likes me,” or perhaps the most detrimental for young girls, “if I show a little more, then I’ll be praised.” When you open yourself up to the scourge of the internet, you’re opening yourself up to ridicule, and most of us aren’t ready to deal with that ridicule.
Psychiatrist David Veal reveals some of his professional experience, saying “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take selfies.” He says “This is a serious problem. It’s not a vanity issue. It’s a mental health one which has an extremely high suicide rate.” Clinical psychologist Lucie Hemmen explains this phenomenon like this:
There’s a continuum of health and authenticity in what you shoot and post. A secure, mature person is going to post selfies that are spontaneous and not overly engineered or edited, and they’re going to do it less often. A more insecure person is going to post staged or sexualized photos, and they’re going to do it so much that they become consumed by it and the comments they receive.
If you’re wondering about the “it’s not a vanity issue” quote above, don’t worry – it’s also about vanity. In fact, a widely circulated study published this year found that selfie-addiction is linked to narcissism, low self-esteem, and mental illness. Of course, this doesn’t mean that taking selfies means you’re a crazy, insecure narcissist; but there is a correlation with this psychological classification and obsessive taking of selfies.
This is why Thailand’s Ministry of Health has taken the phenomenon of selfies so seriously, warning that they should only be taken occasionally. One beach in France even went so far as to put up a “NO BRAGGIES ZONE” sign in an attempt to ban them all together. A “braggie” is a selfie used to brag to friends and families back home. Not only did the beach owners consider this a public nuisance, but the research suggests it may be a serious personal detriment.
The Bottom Line
I hope it doesn’t turn you into a technophobe, because I certainly am not. In fact, not only am I guilty of some of these as well, but I am probably addicted to my smartphone. The saddest part? You probably are too.
I think there is good news, though. The more I come across research like this, the more my mind changes regarding the way I should interact with such technology. I remember learning that there may be an epidemic of hearing-impaired individuals in a few decades, because of the increase of people with mp3-players and iPods blasting their music at full volume. This ended up changing the way I listened to music on the go. Maybe it’s time to change the way we interact with (and in) the digital world.
Maybe it’s time we put down the phone.
Just after this one last text…