One recent report found that adults in the US check their phones, on average, 344 times a day – once every four minutes – and spend almost three hours a day on their devices in total. The problem for many of us is that one quick phone-related task leads to a quick check of our email or social media feeds, and suddenly we’ve been sucked into endless scrolling.
It’s a vicious circle. The more useful our phones become, the more we use them. The more we use them, the more we lay neural pathways in our brains that lead to pick up our phones for whatever task is at hand – and the more we feel an urge to check our phone even when we don’t have to.
What we do know is that the simple distraction of checking a phone or seeing a notification can have negative consequences. This isn’t very surprising; we know that, in general, multitasking impairs memory and performance. One of the most dangerous examples is phone use while driving. One study found that merely speaking on the phone, not texting, was enough to make drivers slower to react on the road. It’s true for everyday tasks that are less high-stakes, too. Simply hearing a notification “ding” made participants of another study perform far worse on a task – almost as badly as participants who were speaking or texting on the phone during the task.
It isn’t just the use of a phone that has consequences – its mere presence can affect the way we think.
In one recent study, for example, researchers asked participants to either put their phones next to them so they were visible (like on a desk), nearby and out of sight (like in a bag or pocket), or in another room. Participants then completed a series of tasks to test their abilities to process and remember information, their problem-solving, and their focus.
They were found to perform far better when their phones were in another room instead of nearby – whether visible, powered on or not. That held true even though most of the participants claimed not to be consciously thinking about their devices.
The mere proximity of a phone, it seems, contributes to “brain drain”. Our brains may be subconsciously hard at work in inhibiting the desire to check our phones, or constantly monitoring the environment to see if we should check our phone (eg, waiting for a notification). Either way, this diverted attention can make doing anything else more difficult. The only “fix”, the researchers found, was putting the device in a different room entirely.