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So you bought that new iPhone. If you are like the typical owner, you’ll be pulling your phone out and using it some 80 times a day, according to data Apple collects. That means you’ll be consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year. Your new phone, like your old one, will become your constant companion and trusty factotum—your teacher, secretary, confessor, guru. The two of you will be inseparable.
The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are. In a 2015 Gallup survey, more than half of iPhone owners said that they couldn’t imagine life without the device.
We love our phones for good reasons. It’s hard to imagine another product that has provided so many useful functions in such a handy form. But while our phones offer convenience and diversion, they also breed anxiety. Their extraordinary usefulness gives them an unprecedented hold on our attention and vast influence over our thinking and behavior. So what happens to our minds when we allow a single tool such dominion over our perception and cognition?
Scientists have begun exploring that question—and what they’re discovering is both fascinating and troubling. Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.
The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance
Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying the way smartphones and the internet affect our thoughts and judgments for a decade. In his own work, as well as that of others, he has seen mounting evidence that using a smartphone, or even hearing one ring or vibrate, produces a welter of distractions that makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job. The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.
A 2015 Journal of Experimental Psychology study, involving 166 subjects, found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers, and their work gets sloppier—whether they check the phone or not. Another 2015 study, which involved 41 iPhone users and appeared in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, showed that when people hear their phone ring but are unable to answer it, their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens, and their problem-solving skills decline.