A recently published study — which included two controlled experiments — has found that smartphone use can lead to a diminished ability to analyze and reason about the meaning of information. But this effect appears to be transient, according to the new research, which appears in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.
“Students and I had heard anecdotally how people felt like too much reliance on smartphones was making them stupid,” remarked study author Peter Frost, a professor of psychology at Southern New Hampshire University.
“One student commented that technology had limited her attention to the extent that she felt she could no longer sustain attention for an entire novel. We also had seen books, like ‘What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr, and articles like, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ by the same author.”
“We found that there were plenty of studies about how smartphones diminish cognitive processes like attention when the technology is present, but we were curious as to whether there are any lingering effects of technology on brain functioning.”
“Correlational studies existed on lingering cognitive effects, but we all have learned in college that correlation does not mean causation. We decided to conduct a controlled experiment. My student research assistants (all undergraduates) said they could show me how we could track usage with apps—it was a nice collaborative situation.”
The researchers conducted three studies to examine the impact of smartphones on cognition. In all of the studies, the participants installed tracking software on their phones so that the researchers could confirm their screen time.
“Using tracking apps, we found that people use their smartphones for about 5-and-a-half hours a day—that is about a third of people’s waking hours! One of our lab assistants was surprised when she found out how much she uses her smartphone — more hours than would be expected of a full-time job,” Frost said.
An initial cross-sectional study of 105 undergraduates found that smartphone use was associated with lower performance on measures of delay of gratification and social problem solving.
In the second study, a week-long controlled experiment of 50 undergraduates, the participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was instructed to use their smartphones no more than 2 hours per day, while the other was instructed to use their smartphones at least 5 hours per day.
Frost and his colleagues found that participants in the high-use group had a diminished ability to interpret and analyze meaning, as measured by the Cornell Critical Thinking Test
The third study of another 50 undergraduates used a similar methodology, but lasted for 28 days instead of just one week.
Replicating their previous findings, the researchers observed that participants had a diminished ability to interpret and analyze meaning, as measured by the California Critical Thinking Skills Test, after one week of using their smartphone more than 5 hours per day.
However, this effect dwindled into insignificance after four weeks. At the end of the month, there was no difference between lower and higher smartphone usage groups — indicating that the effect was only temporary.
“We examined whether continued use of smartphones change the neuroplasticity of the brain in the long run, especially in regards to the ability to delay gratification for longer-term goals, attention and the ability to patiently reflect,” Frost explained to PsyPost.
“In a nutshell, we found that very few aspects of cognition were affected in the long run. We did find that the ability to extract the deeper meaning of information was influenced by heavy, daily smartphone use, but only for a limited amount of time (for about no more than a month after increased use).”
“We believe it was the first study of its kind (implementing controlled experiments and tracking apps) and we hope it will spur a new research area on potential lingering effects of smartphone use on cognition,” Frost said.
But like all research, the study includes some caveats.
“We were limited in how long we could run this study given we anticipated a high dropout rate if we regulated people’s usage rates for much more than a month. A lingering question is whether we would find effects had we manipulated phone usage for longer intervals of time. Some brain scanning studies shows that technology can alter brain activity within a week, but many of those studies involved use of the internet and not smartphones,” Frost said.
“Another lingering question would be whether results would have been different if people were not aware they had downloaded tracking apps. There is a new app on iPhones that would allow us, with consent, to look at usage rates before participants become aware their usage is being observed (we could track usage backwards from the time of the first research session). We are making use of that technology in our next study.”
Unexpectedly, the researchers found that smartphone use was positively associated with some cognitive abilities — such as the ability to judge the credibility of information.
“We anticipated that we might find some lingering effects of smartphones on various aspects of higher cognition, but were surprised to find just one transitory effect associated with higher rates of smartphone usage that lasted no longer than a week (the ability to extract the deeper meaning of information),” Frost told PsyPost.
“We might have been swept up by a technology bias that seems to accompany the introduction of new technologies, even going back to books. Plato claimed our reliance on books might compromise memory. There have been similar fears expressed about radio, calculators, television, email and the internet.
“While fears of lingering effects might be more a social phenomenon than reality, we have to caution that there is research showing smartphones have addictive qualities and can compromise cognitive functions like attention while in use. In other words, some fears of smartphones are justified,” Frost said.