Just Having Your Smartphone Nearby Might Be Changing Your Brain

Just Having Your Smartphone Nearby Might Be Changing Your Brain

Smartphones are everywhere in our lives, but their ever growing features and utility go hand in hand with dependency and excessive use. But is it that having a smartphone impacts one’s memory? Check out this study showing that thinking about a smartphone often and having one nearby are associated with worse memory recall and learning.

Key Takeaways

  • Having a phone nearby leads to worse memory accuracy relative to having the phone taken away  
  • Often thinking about one’s smartphone is associated with poorer memory recall
  • Getting stressed when the phone is taken away is linked to worse memory scores

How Smartphone Presence Affects Your Memory

Smartphones have become indispensable for many worldwide, evolving in little time from mobile phones with basic functions to modern devices that connect us to the internet and social media, help with work, and enable making high-quality videos. This constant presence in our lives has been associated with psychological dependency and stress when the smartphone is not nearby. But the debate remains open as to whether being obsessed with one’s smartphone has a negative impact on cognition and mood.

Research has shown that small distractions such as reaching for a cell phone disrupt attention. In the classroom, studies found that smartphone users take fewer notes and perform worse than students who do not use a smartphone. Particularly, a smartphone left next to a participant can be a powerful distractor in more demanding cognitive tasks, even when not in use.

A smartphone nearby can be a powerful distractor in more demanding cognitive tasks, even when not in use.

The exact impact of smartphone separation and of constantly thinking about it on memory recall remained to be determined. Young adults are known to be prone to excessive smartphone use, which can result in poor mental health, even if they are aware of their phone overuse.

Therefore, while first replicating a study to see if participants whose smartphone was out of sight had better memory accuracy than those who had their phone next to them, researchers in Malaysia and the U.K. hypothesized that being more addicted to and often thinking more about one’s smartphone is associated with worse memory. They also assessed whether smartphone addiction, phone conscious thought (how often the participants thought about their smartphone), and affective states would predict memory accuracy.

To do so, they recruited 119 undergraduates who used their smartphones for an average of 8 hours a day mostly for social networking and communication. Working memory was assessed with a 20-minute task that asked the participants to recall three types of stimuli (words, letters and digits) shown on a screen.

A scale was used to examine mood and affective state. This was done through responses to descriptive statements of both positive affect (being interested, enthusiastic, proud) and negative affect — feeling guilty, stressed, hostile. Smartphone addiction was analyzed with another scale that addressed how the smartphone impacts everyday activities, whether the participant would be stressed if separated or excited with the prospect of using the phone, and if the respondent had become inseparable from their phone, among other domains. Participants were also asked how often they thought of their smartphone, as a measure of addiction, and about the impact of the phone on attention and learning.

First, results showed that participants whose phones were taken away had better memory recall accuracy than those with a phone next to them. But the findings also revealed that these groups did not differ in their smartphone addiction score as assessed on the scale, and that one’s addiction level did not impact memory accuracy. Of note, both groups had high addiction scores on the appropriate scale, supporting the previously reported high phone addiction in the student population.

The findings revealed that that one’s addiction level did not impact memory accuracy.

In subsequent analyses, the more the participants thought about their phone during the memory test, the lower were their memory scores. This happened in both groups. According to the researchers, reasons for addiction being associated with memory through phone conscious thoughts but not through the scale were twofold: first, asking how often one was thinking about the phone is better suited to capture interruptions from their smartphone use; second, the scale included judgmental terms such as irritated, which may have influenced participants’ ability to recall.

In further findings, those who had their phone taken away showed poorer memory particularly when they experienced more negative affect (more stress), an association that was not found in the group allowed to keep their phone close.

Finally, the investigators reported that analyzing how frequently the participants thought about the phone predicted their memory accuracy. In contrast, no such predictions could be made with smartphone addiction scores on the scale, nor with both positive and negative affect. Likewise, no difference was found between having the phone away or nearby on the participants’ perceptions of how their phone usage impacted their learning and attention span.

The study authors suggest that the poorer memory recall when thinking more about the phone and having it nearby is likely a result of cognitive load and how it affects processing rather than actual failures of memory processes. In other words, thinking about their smartphones took up mental resources that could otherwise have been used for memory performance.

Thinking about their smartphones took up mental resources that could otherwise have been used for memory performance.

Although more studies are needed to figure out exactly how smartphone presence influences memory, this study highlights the significant impact smartphone use may have on students’ cognitive performance. This is particularly relevant now that online lessons have become more common, a context that may be more prone to smartphone use for social media and other purposes during classes, making it challenging to remain focused. And these findings extend beyond students’ performance: adults who use smartphones at work may also see their performance affected by the distracting powers of their phone. Putting away your phone while you work may be a simple strategy to help you stay focused. 

Referenced study: 

Tamil, CT, Yong, MH. Mobile phones: The effect of its presence on learning and memory. PLoS One 2020, 15(8): e0219233. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219233

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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