Recently 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 afternoon in New York City. 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. He did this 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. Just as troubling, this young guy looked unfazed by the near tragic accident that had almost occurred and went on his merry way continuing his texting.
I thought to myself, have we become that numb to the world around us and so self- absorbed that we forget the very basic rules of safety that most people learned at a very young age? Have smart phones really made us that dumb? Sadly, they have. And it isn't limited to here in the U.S. I recently discussed this phenomenon during an interview on the Turkish TV news channel TRT World.
While there's no doubt that smartphones and other technology have made life easier by affording many conveniences and instant access to the world, they've 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 smartphone, I am though urging people to be 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, and look-up from their phones more.
Here's how smartphones are making us dumber (and how to outsmart them):
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 an emotional pacifier, 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.
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. I've even seen high anxiety with people who are without their phones. Understand that a phone is merely a source of information and a way to communicate--it's not part of your personality.
Smartphones affect our sleep.
This makes us less sharp during the day. 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. Further, the more they focus on the apps, the less they focus on the person who might be squarely in front of them. Focus on people first, apps second.
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? At least know how to read a map so you won't be left for lost should your smartphone not function.
Peoples' ability to complete basic tasks is diminished.
Auto-correct and tip calculators pretty much eliminate the need to know basic math and spelling. Every so often figure out tips with your brain just to maintain that basic ability.
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 miss-communicated. 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.
When I was a kid, I learned to look both ways when crossing the street. Today, I encourage us all to use #lookup in our social media posts and then actually, look up!