Smartphones are making us stupid – and may be a ‘gateway drug’

Recent mobile phone bans in Victorian state schools have had some parents and kids up in arms, despite a study showing that 80 per cent of Australians support the ban.

Many private schools are now implementing phone and device bans in schools – but they too face fierce opposition.

Parents across Australia fork out hundreds of dollars to equip their kids with smartphones and iPads, often during primary school years.

While peer group pressure and social expectations are behind most smartphone purchases, many parents also hope that these clever devices will encourage their child to learn to be tech-savvy, to develop their creative skills and to use these tiny computers to boost their learning.

But growing evidence shows that smartphones are doing the reverse: rather than making us smarter, mobile devices reduce our cognitive ability in measurable ways.

“There’s lots of evidence showing that the information you learn on a digital device, doesn’t get retained very well and isn’t transferred across to the real world,” Professor Mark Williams of Macquarie University says.

“You’re also quickly conditioned to attend to lots of attention-grabbing signals, beeps and buzzes, so you jump from one task to the other and you don’t concentrate.”

“The more time that kids spend on digital devices, the less empathetic they are, and the less they are able to process and recognise facial expressions.”

Not only do smartphones affect our memory and our concentration, research shows they are addictive – to the point where they could be a ‘gateway drug’ making users more vulnerable to other addictions.

Smartphones are also linked to reduced social interaction, inadequate sleep, poor real-world navigation, and depression.

“Given what we know about the effect that smartphones and digital devices have on our brains, it’s scary to see how prolific their use is with children from a very young age,” says Williams.

Williams, who spent 10 years studying the neuroscience around people’s perceptions of facial expressions and how these impact our social interactions, became interested in the impact of devices on our brains when his own children started school.

“All of a sudden they wanted to play video games, because that’s what their friends were doing – and the school introduced a bring your own device (BYOD) policy so we had to buy them an iPad,” he says.

“I was just like: ‘ We shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not good for them.’”

Smartphones make us prone to addiction

Williams is currently contributing to a large study at Macquarie investigating the relationship between social media addiction, gaming addiction and porn addiction.

“All addiction is based on the same craving for a dopamine response, whether it’s drug, gambling, alcohol or phone addiction,” he says.

“As the dopamine response drops off, you need to increase the amount you need to get the same result, you want a little bit more next time. Neurologically, they all look the same.

“We know – there are lots of studies on this – that once we form an addiction to something, we become more vulnerable to other addictions.

“That’s why there’s concerns around heavy users of more benign, easily-accessed drugs like alcohol and marijuana as there’s some correlation with usage of more physically addictive drugs like heroin, and neurological responses are the same.”

Could a child’s smartphone act like a ‘gateway drug’?

“Our brains can’t actually multitask, we have to switch our attention from one thing to another, and each time you switch, there’s a cost to your attentional resources.”

Many of the apps that are hugely popular on smartphones and devices tap into decades of neuroscience and psychology research funded by the casino and gambling industries, which are designed to be addictive, Williams says.

“Casino-funded research is designed to keep people gambling, and app software developers use exactly the same techniques.

They have lots of buzzes and icons so you attend to them, they have things that move and flash so you notice them and keep your attention on the device.” Continue reading

  • Professor Mark Williams is a neuroscientist in the Department of Cognitive Science, Faculty of Human Sciences at Macquarie University.
  • Macquarie University.
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