THE BLOG
07/11/2014 08:23 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Are Smartphones Making Us Dumber?

The other day I was walking down a busy Manhattan street. Sidewalks were bustling with activity and were filled with people from just about every demographic imaginable. It was a typical summer Saturday afternoon in New York. Several strides ahead of me, I see a 20-something guy with his face buried deep in his phone, walk directly into a crosswalk, into a red light and into moving cars, without lifting his head, probably without even blinking, and obviously without thinking about anything but his texting. Fortunately the cars saw him and were able to slam on their brakes and avert what may have been a terrible accident. The young guy looked unfazed by this and went on his merry way, continuing his texting. I thought to myself, have we become that numb to the world around us? So self absorbed that we forget the very basic rules of safety that most people learned at a very young age? Have smartphones made us that dumb? Sadly, they have.

While there's no doubt that smartphone have made life easier by affording many conveniences and instant access to the world, it has effectively also made us more reliant on machine and less reliant on our own brain power. I'm in no way suggesting people should part with their smartphones. I am suggesting that people become more aware of how they might be hurting, rather than helping, their brains and looking at ways to strike a balance between smartphone use and smartphone reliance.

Here's how smartphones are making us dumber:

  • People forget how to talk. So often when I'm at social or professional events I look around and see people buried in their phones. If there are 100 people at a gathering I'd estimate one-quarter of them are texting or using their phone. Have they forgotten how to talk? Maybe. Are they too anxious to talk? Perhaps. Phones have become a pacifier of sorts, a security blanket, and a source of comfort to many. While at social and professional events, let's get back to good old fashioned communication and have a conversation, sans phone.
  • Smartphones affect our sleep. This makes us less sharp during the day. So many of my patients talk about how they keep their phone by their bed and on during the night and they do it because a text might come in. Going to bed under such conditions won't allow you to fully relax and get into a deep sleep. Shut the phone off completely and deal with any texts or messages in the morning.
  • People can't focus. A smartphone offers a multitude of apps, services, and features, leading to stimulation overload. Because of this, peoples' brains are on overdrive and they multitask, not allowing them to devote their full attention to one task, leaving them less productive.
  • People die at the hands of texting. Tragically looking down for a second or two to text while driving can lead to a fatality. Fines issued by law enforcement don't seem to deter users from doing this. Ultimately it will come down to people valuing life (theirs and others') over what they deem to be the urgency of a text.
  • People can't read a map. There's such a dependence to use the phone to give us verbal step-by-step directions that people don't have a sense of where they are. They essentially have come to rely on a computerized voice to get them from point A to point B instead of their own brain, sense of direction, and ability to look at a map and know where they are. What happens if the phone breaks or powers off? Will you be lost?
  • Peoples' identities are defined by their smartphone. Not just are they a status symbol, but without them, people feel "lost, empty, and naked." Many of my patients described this separation in such dramatic terms.
  • Peoples' ability to complete basic tasks is diminished. Autocorrect and tip calculators pretty much eliminate the need to know basic math and spelling.
  • Selfies. A culture of self-absorption and self-aggrandizing has been bred. Need I say more?

So be smart about your smartphone use. See the phone for what it is: a tool for communication and for information. It doesn't define you, make you more appealing to others, nor should it rule your life.

Have a period of no phone use and turn it off at night. Give it a break when you're giving yourself a rest. Prioritize people and real life human interactions over that of phones. There's an element of communication that simply isn't captured when using texting. Emotion is often missed, overlooked, or even miscommunicated. When possible, pick up the phone, and get back to that lost art of communication: talking.

Perhaps most important, don't let your desire to send or snap a picture or a text prevent you from enjoying a priceless moment in time that can only be captured with your naked eye in the moment.

For more tips and insight on how to lead a fulfilling and happy life check out my book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

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