Rick Holmes: Smartphones are changing our brains

Staff Writer
The Destin Log

In Stephen King’s “Cell,” published in 2007, a pulse hits people as they are speaking on their cellphones, turning them into zombies.

No, that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. But our phones are changing us, it’s happening fast and no one knows where it’s leading.

Two-thirds of Americans now have smartphones, and we can feel their power. They are always nearby, blinking and buzzing and pinging with dispatches from our other worlds: texts and tweets, news alerts and Facebook updates. Sometimes we feel phantom vibrations, hear imaginary dings from our phones. Sometimes we just need to touch them for reassurance – or something.

Over just the last few years, we’ve seen people get more comfortable with texting than talking. What’s that about? We’ve seen how people have lost the ability to sit on a bus, wait in a line, or hang out in a park on a sunny day without playing with their phones. What’s happening to us?

Science is starting to answer these questions, and it’s scary. In pursuit of quick profits, phone and app makers are toying with some pretty elemental processes. Consider:

Our attention spans have shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds today, according to a Microsoft study. Goldfish have a longer attention span – 9 seconds - than modern Americans.

Phones are spoiling our sleep. Reading on a screen before bed stimulates the brain, while reading on print helps your brain relax. If your phone is within six feet of your head, the lights and sounds it makes during the night – and even the signals it silently sends – can disturb sleep patterns. For a nation desperately in need of a good night’s sleep, this is not healthy.

A European study has identified “digital amnesia,” a growing inability to remember things like addresses and phone numbers.

A Baylor University study finds growing strains in relationships because of “partner phone snubbing.” A table for two isn’t as romantic when the couple is staring at their phones instead of each other.

Splitting our attention between the people we’re with and the people on the phone is what troubles Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has written a book on the threats to conversation in the digital age.

Instead of deepening our communication, cellphones make it more shallow, Turkle wrote in a recent New York Times oped, as we reserve part of our attention for our phone connections. Turkle cites research showing that even the presence of a phone on the table causes people to keep the conversation light, so they can be prepared to connect to their phone world if needed.

You really can’t cover as much ground with a text as you can with a conversation. You can’t read faces if you’re looking at your phone. Emojis aren’t emotions.

Most troubling is what the smartphone life does to kids. Social scientists see in today’s children a worrisome loss of empathy. They can’t read emotions in other people’s faces at the same age previous generations could.

We’re also losing our ability to be alone. Know how disconnected and disoriented you feel when you can’t get service or you don’t have your phone? We can’t handle the solitude that, for all humankind’s existence until now has been a source of inspiration, a balm for anxiety, a place where we connect with our deepest selves.

Turkle reports that, if you get kids away from their phones for even a few days, they open up to the experiences of solitude, self-reliance and face-to-face fellowship. She cites a study of children deprived of their devices at an outdoors camp. After five days, researchers found measurable improvement in their ability to interpret the emotions of actors in video scenes. “What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another,” she writes.

We may already be seeing a cultural response to the technological challenge. There’s an increased interest in “mindfulness” techniques for getting back in touch with our inner selves, as well as massage, yoga and other pursuits that focus on physical, not digital, experience.

We aren’t getting rid of our smartphones – you’d need a crowbar to pry mine from my hands – but we need to develop social norms that keep them from becoming our masters. We can charge our phones in another room overnight. We can keep phones away from the dinner table, or even institute phone-free Sundays.

The digital age offers wonderful advances — unlimited access to information, liberation from geographical isolation, the ability to connect with like-minded people around the world. But there is a powerful magic in our new phones. If we don’t watch out, they may turn us into zombies.

Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest (Massachusetts) Daily News. He can be reached at Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.