Last night my husband annihilated my smartphone whilst trying to fix it. I came home from my bookclub to be greeted with the confession that my phone was no more. And I am delighted. Because as a legal content writer, I have to do two things extremely well:
- creatively think up new ways to write about the law that appeals to ordinary people, and
- concentrate deeply for hours at a time.
And I am convinced the last seven years or so of relentless smartphone use has made both of these essential skills a lot harder than they should be.
My suspicions are not unfounded, in fact, they are backed up by solid evidence.
How smartphones negatively affect our brains
A study published in April 2017 showed the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance.
In his book, The Shallows, a Pulitzer Prize finalist book which examines what the internet is doing to our brains, Nicholas Carr states:
“The constant distraction that the Net encourages – the state of being, to borrow another prase from Eliot’s Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distration” – is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we are weighing a decision. The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively”.
It is important to note that The Shallows was published in 2010, when smartphone use was in its infancy, (iPhones had only come out in 2007 and Andriod phones only appeared that year). Now, almost everyone in the developed world has instant access to the internet, i.e. distraction, at all times.
The age of anxiety
Smartphones and constant access to the internet and social media have improved our cognitive powers in some ways. It has allowed us to process visual cues quicker and there is evidence our fast-paced problem-solving skills have been improved, along with a small expansion in the capacity of our “working” memory, that is the information we can hold superficially at any one time.
But this is small change when compared with the high price humans are paying in terms of the increase in depression and anxiety.
The link between mental health problems and smartphone use is not definitive. However, a recent study showed that people who are emotionally unstable are more likely to be addicted to their smartphone and the more such a person used their smartphone, the more their anxiety increased.
Much blame for the rise of mental health problems has been placed on social media. But what about the fact we now have 24/7 access to the news wherever we are? As a legal content writer, I am as guilty as any journalist of subscribing to the philosophy, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. My job is to get people to read a particular law firm’s blog. And, human nature being what it is, if that blog is angled towards some tragic event that is currently trending, people are more likely to read it, comment on it and, more importantly, remember the name of the firm on whose blog or social media feed it appears on. Write a legal blog on the law surrounding redundancy and it is likely to get lost in the plethora of hundreds of other articles written on the same subject. Create a redundancy blog based around the fact that 14,000 British jobs are at risk because Airbus is fed up with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and suddenly you have a blog that will pay its way in terms of ‘likes’, readership and ultimately, conversions.
However, being bombarded with news of economic Armageddon and disasters around the clock has a tendency to drive human beings a little crazy. For example, there is a persistent belief that social mobility is decreasing, violence is increasing, and we are becoming worse off financially. Anyone who has ever read a history book knows this is blatantly untrue; we are healthier, richer and more tolerant than ever, and this set of circumstances is only likely to increase. The trouble is, trumpeting this type of news from the rooftops does not sell advertising space or enable tech giants to gather personal data about your preferences so they can target ads (thereby making more money). So, if you rely on getting your knowledge on how the world is doing from newspapers and magazines, no one could blame you for thinking we are all going to hell in a hand-cart.
Our lazy brains
Most people are aware of everything I have written above. Common sense tells us that checking our smartphones over 200 times a day is probably not good for our productivity or social lives. So why do we do it? Because our brains are wired for instant gratification and to conserve energy by expending the least amount of cognitive resource. I love reading more than anything in the world. But, if I am tired, given the choice between scrolling aimlessly through my smartphone and reading a few chapters of my book, I will go for the former every time. Because it is easy. I don’t have to think. I don’t have to deal with boredom. I can just mindlessly consume data.
Return to the dumb phone?
My husband has been sent out this morning with one clear instruction. To buy me the dumbest phone he can find. All I want it to do is be able to make and receive calls and text.
I want my ability to focus back.
I want my brain back.
I want my life back.
Oh, and I want to learn how to follow a map again.
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