The smartphone has become an essential part of everyday life for us. We use it to stay in touch with our friends, find our way around town or order something to eat. While there are undeniably many benefits that we like to think about when it comes to our smartphones - there is also a downside.
The smartphone has become an essential part of everyday life for us. We use it to stay in touch with our friends, find our way around town or order something to eat. While there are undeniably many benefits that we like to think about when it comes to our smartphones - there is also a downside. In recent years the number of apps that you can download has exploded and on top of that some of these apps are so well designed and intriguing that it becomes increasingly difficult to put the phone away and ignore them. As a consequence we are spending more time on our smartphones and get easily distracted. That is of course no coincidence, companies like Facebook and Youtube are investing billions of dollars to make their products more interesting and engaging. At the end of the day the more time you spend on their apps the more money they will make.
But why is that a problem and what is the unwanted downside? Thankfully a lot of progress in terms of research on the topic has been made over the last couple of years and we can now understand much better how high smartphone use can impact our efficiency and performance.
Making good progress on any task basically comes down to our attention and the ability to stay focused over an extended period of time. Studies identified that multitasking has one of the biggest negative impacts on our work or academic performance and it probably comes at no surprise that our smartphones are one of the top drivers for multitasking. We have probably all been in this situation. We are trying to write an email to a colleague, get some homework done or study for an exam, but once we hit a little roadblock or things get tricky, our focus shifts away for a brief moment and we pick up the phone. Once unlocked we see new notifications and we start to check text messages, the weather, social media or a number of other things.
Multitasking is not just a waste of time by keeping us away from actually studying, by switching back and forth between tasks we become less efficient and the likelihood of making a mistake is increased. This is especially the case when it comes to complex tasks such as homework or studying. On top of that, people who frequently media multitask have increasing difficulty concentrating on a single task even when they are not distracted by anything else.
Another study analyzed the attention span for high school and university students, showing how quickly we fall into the trap of multitasking. A big reason is the fun and intriguing nature of our smartphones or digital media in general. The constant impulses and never ending stream of new contend make it hard to focus on anything else. The study found out that on average students get distracted by their smartphones after only studying for 6 minutes. As a consequence and this is where it becomes clear that the combination of a low attention span and multitasking has a negative impact on our performance, the GPA of students in university with high phone use was on average 0.31 grade points lower compared to students with low phone use.
Lastly, the impact on our short term memory. Multitasking in combination with a short attention span is already lowering the chances for success at studying or work. On top of that, the brain's ability to store and recall complex information is impaired after being exposed to a phone screen for a few minutes. This can be particularly problematic when we are actually trying to remember everything we are reading for a quiz or exam.
In conclusion, whenever we are trying to get some deep work done and want to focus on a specific task for an extended period of time with maximum memory functionality, it is best to keep the phone stored away. Most efficient would be to have it in a separate room where it will be out of sight and the temptation to grab it, as it lies next to you on the desk, is not given. Taking planned breaks every 30min - 45min is still encouraged and can make you more productive in the long run. However, we don’t want our work to fight for attention against our smartphones while we want to be productive, this is a battle we would probably lose most of the time. So better to not get tempted in the first place.