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Smartphones and the Numbing of the American Mind

smartphones making us dumb bannerSmartphone usage is on the rise. Yeah, I know; no big surprise there. Smartphones have become an appendage that we turn to almost constantly for the time, news, communications, entertainment, and directions.  Here are some staggering stats (according to a study conducted by Tecmark)

  1. In an average week, a smart phone user picks up his/her phone more than 1,500 times
  2. The average smartphone user uses his/her device for three hours and sixteen minutes each day – or the equivalent of almost one full day a week.
  3. Almost four in 10 users admitted feeling lost without their gadgets.
  4. Many owners also confessed to finding themselves using their phone without realising they are doing so. Four in 10 said they have, at one time or another, checked their emails automatically without thinking.
  5. Smartphones are becoming more of a “go-to gadget,” replacing desktops and laptops. People, on average, turn to their phones for 140 tasks in a typical day.

In the US, a staggering 71% of the adult population use smartphones. Among Millennials, a cohort whose numbers (77 million) rank right up there with Boomers, smartphones are even more prevalent: 85% of 18 to24-year-olds, and 86% of 25 to34-year-olds own smartphones. We look to Millennials becuase trend currents can be predicted by their current behaviors. So it’s no surprise that most analysts predict that smart phone adoption, as a percentage of the population, will increase even further in the next 10 years. Below is a summary of smart phone adoption by age group and gender according to Nielsen, as at Q2, 2014.

 are smart phones making us dumb

Smartphones and the Numbing of the American Mind

The numbers clearly indicate that there’s an increasing dependency on smartphones by the public  but what effect does that have on our productivity, or our intelligence for that matter?

Steve Mazie wrote an interesting article for BigThink, in which he claims that smart phones are robbing us of our best ideas. In short, this hypothesis is based on the fact that most of us turn to our phones to kill time (scrolling Facebook, playing Bejeweled, etc.) on our downtime, instead of dedicating that time to more productive “thinking.”

He shares the story of Charles Townes, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who invented the laser. Townes reported that the idea for the laser came to him during some downtime while sitting on a park bench. In the absence of mobile devices to occupy his time and mind, he took out a piece of paper and scribbled some thoughts that came to him unexpectedly. Those thoughts were later credited for inspiring the ideas that would eventually become the invention of the laser.

If that were today, Townes, like so many of us, would have turned on his smartphone to check Facebook or other social networks, play a game, read email, or watch Super Bowl commercials on YouTube.  Would his mind have been free and open to have creative and spontaneous thoughts pop in?

What Are Smartphones Doing to Business Innovation and Productivity?

Extending this premise to business, where an even greater percentage of people own/use smartphones on a daily basis, how much paid or free time is spent “surfing” instead of feely thinking?  Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive psychologist, discovered that there’s a direct link between distraction and creativity. His findings call out the principle of “perceptual decoupling,” which explains how a mind that’s left to wander, free of constant attention to immediate needs and activities, is more likely to create unique and innovative ideas.

So innovation is supported by “wandering minds.” Yet, the daily distraction and attention to our smartphones keep our minds in the here-and-now, instead of allowing them to wander.

“There’s a close link between originality, novelty, and creativity on the one hand, and the sort of spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle,” states Smallwood.

True, much of the time business professionals use their smartphones during off-hours is for business-related tasks. According to a study produced by the Centre for Creative Leadership, 60% of smartphone-carrying professionals stay connected with work for 13.5 hours per day, which is 5 hours more than the typical eight-hour workday. However, that same smartphone is also used for other activities.  According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 81% of people report using their devices for sending/receiving text messages, 60% use it to surf the Internet, 50% download apps, 49% say it’s used for real-time directions and recommendations, and 48% say it’s used for listening to music.

Employees Tethered To Smartphones

Employers who keep their employees tethered to their phones – and those addicted to their smart phones – argue that these devices provide freedom; the freedom to pick up your kid from school, hit the gym, or visit the optomitrist during the day because we won’t miss anything at work. However, this freedom may come at a cost; being “always on” takes a toll on a person’s psyche and emotions. “There’s a Heisenbergian uncertainty to one’s putative off-hours, a nagging sense that you can never quite be present in the here and now, because hey, work might intrude at any moment. You’re not officially working, yet you remain entangled—never quite able to relax and detach,” argues Clive Thompson, Environment analyst for Mother Jones.

While a smartphone can be used as a productivity tool, it’s also a source of constant distraction. The net effect of that productivity-distraction debate on our personal or professional accomplishments may never been quantified; however, I suspect the results may not be to our liking.

Sensei Debates

Has the constant distraction provided by smartphones diminished our capacity to innovate? 

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Image Credit: jornal O Tempo de BH


Join the Conversation

rebelbrown 5pts

Did you guys know that Smartphones are designed to be addictive?  The pixel refresh rate on ALL modern screens puts us into a hypnotic trance within 4 seconds of viewing.  Part of that trance imprints a safety feeling in our unconscious mind - so we come back for more. hows that for mind control of every human on the planet? 

There's been debate about the rise of IT and the fall of productivity for years. The productivity paradox has been debated and written about since the early 80s (maybe before).   There was a great article in the NYT that talked about statistics pointing to the fact that tech tools would become counterproductive if over used. Cant remember who wrote it right now.

Thing is- the very technology we want to support productivity is designed to make us less productive and more controlled by the information delivered by that tech.  We're programmed to check that tech more and more frequently, in our hypnotic states we believe what we read and see on that smartphone or tablet.... and we're drawn to read and see more and more.

Which means we dont take the time to sit and reflect, to doodle on a piece of paper (the biggest source of major innovations ever) and so -  we are less creative, less out of the box thinkers and frankly, less likely do come up with that next best idea. 

My question is this.  Who has the most to gain from creating a population that's mentally numb and being programmed daily to stay that way?

Just sayin... I think this goes way beyond the workplace.  We're looking at a global shift of humanity. And not in a positive direction.  

GREAT share Sam.  you rock dude! 

rebelbrown 5pts

@samfiorella @rebelbrown  Dont be depressed. Just put that damned phone down and when you do pick it up, cause it consciously and then put it back down!  You can do it Sam - you're SUPER SAM!!! 

And btw - better to be aware now than a mind slave later.  just sayin...


Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

Interesting thoughts and analysis as always, mate.

For me, it comes down to the same point you made recently about hate and ignorance towards people - it comes down to choice.

Are smartphones ubiquitous? Yes? Do they need to be used? No. Can they be ignored? Yes?

When I come home from work, the phone is put away until the kids go to bed. My focus is on them.

When I go to dinner with my wife, the phone stays in my pocket. My focus is on my wife.

When I commute to work (or home from work), I check the phone at the start of the journey, and then it goes back in my pocket until I reach my destination. Instead, I watch the sunrise; read the paper; close my eyes and enjoy the moment.

We create the people we are - technology should complement that, not rule it. Otherwise, we may as well just switch off now and be zombies until we die.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

@samfiorella Of course they can be ignored - it's a choice. Life is occurring in real-time, but real-time doesn't mean we need to be on 24/7. Choose to be on for the work that needs to be done, then choose to close that down when it's no longer needed.

We check stuff because we believe it's important - it rarely is as important as the level of importance we give it. Will an email reply to a client or boss really signal the end of the world if it waits until morning? No.

If it's critical to respond, by all means do. If it's not, we're simply making excuses for being tethered to tech.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Danny Brown I'm not sure our smartphones (or any digital device for that matter) can be ignored. It's a love/hate thing. We know we're addicted and probably turn to them way too much, yet employers/clients keep us tethered to them, Our kids/friends/spouses have replaced telephone conversations and even email with instant messaging and texting for communications. Life is occurring in real-time more than ever and we need/want that instant response. 

Now that we're beginning to understand the possible effects on our addiction (texting/driving, overuse of mobile devices = decreased innovation/creative thinking, etc.) maybe we'll do as you do and ensure we have "phone free zones" where we give ourselves the time to just be in the moment with ourselves and/or our loved ones. 

I'm not holding my breath. 

markkolier 5pts

Great post. The genie is already out of the bottle Sam and employers have to adapt.  If response is required as it happens, then the acceptance of non-business smartphone activity has to be part of the equation. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@markkolier  I'd like to see employers and/or managers take the lead and declare off-hours as work email/text free zones and include compliance with such policies in the employee's performance review. 


I almost got that out without laughing. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@markkolier Heh, can you imagine: 

Employer: We're mandating that you don't use your phones to check email on weekends, vacation, etc. However, you can't check social media, news, or personal email on your phone while at work. 

Employee: *Resignation Letter* 

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