The Smart Phones are Making us Dumber

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Recent research reveals, none to my surprise, that our smartphones are making us stupid. To quote The Wall Street Journal: “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests the intellect weakens.” When the phone beeps or chirps, it distracts us, whether we admit to it or not, “the division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.”


Teachers, school administrators and education professionals, take note: “A study of 91 secondary schools in the UK published last year in the journal Labour Economics found that when schools ban smartphones, students’ examination scores go up substantially, with the weakest students benefitting the most.” Sure, the student can find the answer on Google, they just cannot recall it to any substantial degree and if they cannot recall it, they didn’t really learn it, they just referenced it.


There are many subjects in academia that require rote memorization, there is simply no substitute for it. Things like math equations, hard science subjects like anatomy and chemistry require that certain fundamentals be committed to memory. Academically, history is the recall of dates and names and the events that unfolded. Certainly, these can all be found on Google, but, as stated, being able to reference something and recall it are two entirely different competencies. I once wrote a research paper on hypnotic age regression, one of the most obscure (back then) topics one could choose concerning human consciousness. I sent off to college libraries across the map to find the limited number of books on the subject, and one of them was so poorly written that it was barely comprehensible. A quick Google search today reveals at least nine websites to click on.


That was then, this is now, but the ability to discover things by doing research is certainly a skill that will benefit anyone, in academia and well beyond. Information is how we make decisions, and bad information yields bad decisions. I won’t even address the impact these devices have on critical thinking competency.


I am not criticizing anyone for using Google to discover things, but there are at least two problems: One, the “information” on the internet is not as reliable as one might think, and two, hard research involves the ability to discern what information is relevant and what is not. There must be a foundation of knowledge, of understanding, that guides the research as well as makes the judgments regarding the validity of conclusions. Looking it up on Google is simple and easy, but recalling the information is far more difficult.


A study cited in the Wall Street Journal from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology studied 160 students from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The students that didn’t bring their smartphones to class scored a full letter grade higher on test material presented than those who brought their phones. The scary part is that it made no difference if they used their phones or not, if they simply brought their phones, they scored equally poorly.


More bad news. When the internet came into our consciousness, it was lauded as a tool that would make us all smarter, but it hasn’t turned out that way. More information does not always  foster sharper thinking, as the article states: “The way a media device is designed and used exerts at least as much influence over our minds as does the information that the device unlocks.” Another more troubling experiment published in the journal Science involved people typing information into a computer, and half were told that that the computer would save the information, while the other half were told it would be immediately be erased. The second part of the experiment was for the subjects to write down all of the statements they could remember that they typed. The subjects who believed that the information would be saved had much weaker recall than those who were told it would be immediately erased. If you know it will disappear, you’ll try to remember more of it.


The conclusion is rather simple. The smartphones are not making us smarter. They are inhibiting our memory, they are distracting us, as well as making us more reliant on technology than ever, and worst of all, to use a rather blunt term, dumber. The basic memorization skills are fading into the books on the shelf in the library collecting dust that our young people now consider to be an antiquated method and a waste of time and effort.

Tell junior to put away the smart phone, it is making him dumber


George N Romey Added Oct 18, 2017 - 8:57pm
Good article Jeff. Technology is making us dumber by the day. People expect an app or a software program to provide instant answers. No one can rationally and logically think anymore. Within a couple generations we will be functional zombies.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 5:16am
Thanks George. The students tell me what I am teaching them is irrelevant and outdated while they waste time, money and energy on tweeting about essentially nothing. Books are becoming less and less used. Writing skills? For all of the writing that they do in "social media" is for the most part, atrocious.
Dino Manalis Added Oct 19, 2017 - 8:18am
The phones are truly smart, but they distract us!  They should only be used for emergencies, not constantly!
Leroy Added Oct 19, 2017 - 8:55am
Interesting article...wait, let me scroll up...Jeff.
No doubt that the phones are distracting.  I can believe that it does lower comprehension and test scores.  But, I would guess that it opens us up to new skills as well.  From my childhood, I remember it being said that Einstein the Genious was asked for a phone number.  His reply was something like, "Why should I remember something that I can look up?"  There is some truth to that.  It has also been said recently that healthy old people don't have bad memories but have more to remember making it more difficult to recall.  Maybe having less to remember makes more memory available for the things we want to remember.
Does it matter if we go to the library or not?  About half of scientific studies, whether we find them online or in a library, are faulty.  I feel that I am more likely to arrive at the truth by searching multiple sources on the net.
Bill H. Added Oct 19, 2017 - 11:23am
Good article, Jeff!
This is my pet peeve indeed. Not only do many rely on their phone to perform their thinking for them, but this device has virtually taken over the lives of many users. I have been using the term "Phone Zombies" for quite a few years, and it seems to have become mainstream.
We see them walking by, using their phone as a tool to totally ignore us and overriding the need to offer a simple smile and hello. We see them sitting in their parked car with the engine running for over an hour or more texting or yakking. We see an entire family at a restaurant staring at their phones with no interaction at all. We hear them at the Doctors office describing their friends sex life while not realizing that everyone has no choice but to be tuned in. We see groups of kids walking to school mesmerized by their phones and not conversing with each other like us "old farts" used to do. (I deal with kids at the local Boys & Girls Club as volunteer science instructor on some weekends. I actually see kids as young as 8 years old with phones. What I immediately noticed is that the young kids with cell phones had a marked decrease in attention span and ability to communicate or interact with the other children. It became very obvious to the staff, and a move to have the kids turn off their phones was violently opposed by the parents of these kids as "we want to be able to communicate with them and track them at all times for their safety".)
We see the car in front of us driving slowly, not using turn signals, not reacting to the green light for at least 5 seconds or more with their heads bowed while carrying on a text conversation, We hear the guy in the next restroom stall grunting, beeping, and then breaking out into a full-volume conversation about how to meet next week's production deadline on the new fiberglass mop handle account. And we can't forget the guys who are unable to take a piss in the urinal without staring at their phone.
My friend's wife is a volunteer hike leader for the local Sierra Club chapter. One of the rules of the hikes is that everyone turn off their cellphones. After she states this, she mentions "If anyone has a problem with this, I recommend that you stay behind." Believe it or not, out of a group of usually 30 people, at least 3 to 5 refuse to go on the hike without having their phone on.
Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 19, 2017 - 2:13pm
It seems to me that every successful product introduced through the technology sector has as its primary purpose the reduction of face-to-face human contact. Smart phones are the most egregious actors, but think about all of the internet sales occurring, and how Amazon has reduced the need for going shopping. Wal-Mart cut out the mom-and-pop stores, saving money, but Amazon wants to wipe out the entire retail network. Streaming services eliminate the need to go to a theatre to have a movie experience. Then there are the food delivery companies where you only have to interact with a delivery person briefly. Soon drone delivery may eliminate that unpleasantry totally.
Eventually many folks will withdraw into their own virtual world, with no need for human contact whatsoever. The human race will be the poorer for this trend.
Bill H. Added Oct 19, 2017 - 3:00pm
Using our technology to our disadvantage will certainly lead to our demise.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 3:58pm
Leroy, Einstein was noted for not having much of a memory, but then, he was usually thinking about stuff that would make advanced calculus look like addition and subtraction. I have, of late, done so much research that it takes me a while to pull up what research was from where. Thanks for your comments.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 4:09pm
Bill, thanks for the comments, and yeah, someone I know takes the second-hand only a year-or-two-old iPhone so a seven-year-old relative can have the latest $1200 gadget. Of course, there's the cellular fee and the apps as well. I'm not prone to being cruel, but the seven year old who wanted to talk me into buying them that toy would really have to make a case that would make Clarence Darrow look like a slobbering, drunk, Gomer Pyle.  They don't need it, and it is hurting them intellectually and developmentally, and the developmental part is hard to make up. They will have time in their lives to address such things, you know, like summertime?
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 4:14pm
Even A Clock- thanks for the comments and yes, technology is separating us. Some people think that if they have 1,000 people on Facebook, even if they have never met them, that they have lots and lots of friends. This has become the couch generation, who order food from the couch, watch streaming movies from the couch, visit with friends from the couch, and basically live without getting off the couch. I can't wait to hear the medical people claiming that this behavior is causing high blood pressure, obesity, and whatever else you catch from a couch. Thanks again.
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Oct 19, 2017 - 6:19pm
I think it's obvious how you use the thing, regardless if it's a smartphone or whatever. I don't rely on mine so heavily, except for use as a communication tool (the actual phone, texting, etc). I still read virtually all my books in paper traditional form. My family goes to the actual theater about weekly. I basically use social media for news (sharing, archiving, and learning) not oblivious nonsense. We use streaming services like Netflix and Hulu instead of cable and save about $100 a month for it versus the advantage cable subscriber. While I agree with you that the majority of people seem to seek the lowest common level of usage and suffer from it, it does not have to be that way. 
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 8:01pm
Thanks for the comment Lady. The dependence on technology has already created a generation that couldn't go to the library and find things for themselves, which I find troubling. The fundamentals are being lost, and, as mentioned, the basic skills that only come from rote memory are being ignored. I would hate to see going to any professional and have them stop to consult their device to seek what they should already know, as in a doctor or lawyer, or even a teacher. I agree, it doesn't have to be that way, but we are allowing it to happen.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 19, 2017 - 10:22pm
Thanks Michael. A doctor wrote into The Wall Street Journal and said what I have said, that you don't want a doctor who has to look at his iPhone to tell you what is the matter, and especially in an emergency situation, or if there is an internet or power failure. As he said, your final exam is every patient.  Thanks again.
Stone-Eater Added Oct 20, 2017 - 6:23am
Good one, Jeff. Needless to say more. I even couldn't, ma attention span lasts 20 seconds, enuff for 140 letters ;-)
Stone-Eater Added Oct 20, 2017 - 6:23am
my, not ma. See ? Grrrr.
Leroy Added Oct 20, 2017 - 7:42am
You need a smartphone, Stoney.
Stone-Eater Added Oct 20, 2017 - 8:26am
I'm smart enough LOL And......these things are too small to work with. They're ok to listen to mp3's in bed, read news while waiting for something, or chat. That's about it. But I like them because I always hated to phone. I prefer chatting, so I don't need to listen to half-hour blathers and get a cooked ear.
Tikno Added Oct 20, 2017 - 9:39am
Interesting article, Jeff.
I see children who are addicted to social media tend to becomes less sensitive to the environment and society, or to people around them. They are laugh at loud, smile, and interact virtually through smartphone which I call it a dead object. Psychologically this circumstance is not good for the development of emotional intelligence. Even Bill Gates limits his children to use gadget.
I have a joke about social media, that is : ignore the nearby, faraway so close.
George N Romey Added Oct 20, 2017 - 12:52pm
Eventually most of society will be lifeless drones dumbed down by technology and given a living stipend to afford basic housing, food and their monthly phone bill.  We are headed towards the land of a few super rich and the rest poverty stricken zombies kept alive by the welfare state.
Bill Kamps Added Oct 20, 2017 - 2:57pm
Smart phones  certainly are making people lousy drivers.  They should make it illegal to use them while driving.  I saw one woman almost get into a wreck three times in the Kroger parking lot, using a cell phone.  Even after the second almost wreck, she still didnt put it down or stop talking.  Ive passed more than one weaving driver on the freeway, who I thought was drunk, turns out they were texting while driving and this was causing them to go out of their lane.  Self driving cars cant get here soon enough lol.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 22, 2017 - 1:10pm
Tikno, thanks for the response. Rather insightful observations as well.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 22, 2017 - 1:11pm
George, I agree we are well on our way. Young people are convinced that they do not have to know anything anymore. What they don't know is rather obvious.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 22, 2017 - 2:49pm
Yes, Bill, some of them consider texting more valuable than their lives!
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 22, 2017 - 6:14pm
Michael B, as much as I liked your response, you must remember that my students are impressionable and I cannot have them viewing such colorful material. Please feel free to offer a less colorful comment, and thanks for understanding.
Bill H. Added Oct 22, 2017 - 10:58pm
Automakers are now outwardly advertising their "technology" as a way to enable people to drive distracted. Automatic braking, lane exit alerts, auto parking, etc. This stuff actually promotes distracted driving.
Even "hands-free" phone systems are not the answer. Yes, holding a phone while driving does cause accidents, but just the act of talking on the phone puts drivers in another zone that causes accidents. Many studies have proven this. One study I read said that a driver using a hands-free phone was 4 times more likely to get into an accident than a driver simply having a conversation with a passenger.
Mircea Negres Added Oct 25, 2017 - 2:17am
Good article, Jeff. I've been saying for a while today's kids, even university graduates, don't know much of anything. It was based on personal experience instead of research, but the vast majority of those at least a decade younger than me couldn't solve daily problems at the B&B where I worked (definitely not Einstein-level stuff), knew little and had no idea how to even find answers, that is do research. A case in point was a guy studying tourism. He had to prepare some French meals and to learn a few phrases in the language. The guy was totally lost until I suggested he go to Alliance Francaise, a group which provides free French language tuition, thinking he might get in touch with an actual Frenchman. When the person who could've helped him wasn't there, he came back defeated, until out of frustration I pointed to the office computer and asked "what's that?" He replied "a computer", to which I responded "yes, but it's also a research tool", then got online and downloaded the voice files for the French phrases he needed, along with recipes, because he had no idea what questions to even ask...   
Ian Thorpe Added Oct 25, 2017 - 10:07am
"When the internet came into our consciousness, it was lauded as a tool that would make us all smarter, but it hasn’t turned out that way."
I spent a few years in the nuclear energy industry from 1979 - 84 Jeff, when the internet was starting to develop, making us all smarter was never the plan. It started off in the mid seventies when the idea of networking an organisations computers superseded point to point links over phone lines. At that point it was seen as a business tool.
Then bulletin boards accessed by 300 bps or 1200 /75 bps modems revealed the depth of interest in goat porn and bomb making. Some time later it occurred to The Powers That Be that if a global network was created and everybody used computers to access all information and conduct transactions, it would be easy to control the flow of information. The story of how Tim Berners Lee 'invented' the world wide web is a fairy tale BTW, there were several public webs in existence, including JANet, the Joint Academic Nerwork, plus thousands of private intra - organisation networks. TBL simplified communication between those networks basically by throwing away all the security arrangements people like me had carefully built in.

And then firms like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook etc. obligingly provided the 'postern gates' and the rest is history. The really nasty part is how younger people are being conditioned to believe it is clever to let algorithms do the thinking for them. But I could write several books on that if I thought the right people would read them.
Bill H. Added Oct 26, 2017 - 11:14am
People are being convinced that algorithms must do their thinking. That is how they market "smart" phones and the latest level of invasion of privacy, Alexa, Amazon Echo, and Google Home. Many out there actually fall for this stuff.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 26, 2017 - 8:54pm
Thanks for the comment Ian. I can remember when the computer at my college was linked to a college computer in Pennsylvania, before they called it the internet. One of my former employers had an IBM360, which was a big as a small car, that he couldn't do anything with besides look at it. It was once state of the art, but then, everything in the digital world becomes obsolete quickly.
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 26, 2017 - 8:56pm
Yes, Bill they're letting the algorithms do their thinking, as well as voluntarily giving all kinds of information that will be used to sell them things. How sad. Thanks for the comments.