Smartphones are making us stupid – and may be a 'gateway drug'

Professor Mark Williams
As told to Fran Molloy
10 August 2019
Faculty of Human Sciences


Neuroscience research shows that smartphones are making us stupider, less social, more forgetful, more prone to addiction, sleepless and depressed, and poor at navigation – so why are we giving them to kids?

Recent mobile phone bans in Victorian state schools have had some parents and kids up in arms, despite a study showing that 80 per cent of Australians support the ban. Many private schools are now implementing phone and device bans in schools – but they too face fierce opposition.

School's out: Eighty per cent of Australians believe smartphones should be banned in classrooms.

Parents across Australia fork out hundreds of dollars to equip their kids with smartphones and iPads, often during primary school years. While peer group pressure and social expectations are behind most smartphone purchases, many parents also hope that these clever devices will encourage their child to learn to be tech-savvy, to develop their creative skills and to use these tiny computers to boost their learning.

But growing evidence shows that smartphones are doing the reverse: rather than making us smarter, mobile devices reduce our cognitive ability in measurable ways.

Macquarie neuroscientist Professor Mark Williams will present some of the latest research on the phenomenon in a special Sydney Science Week presentation on Monday 12 August at 7pm at Mosman Library titled: Are Smartphones Making us Dumb?

The school introduced a bring your own device (BYOD) policy so we had to buy them an iPad. I was just like: ‘ We shouldn't be doing this. It's not good for them.’ 

“There’s lots of evidence showing that the information you learn on a digital device, doesn’t get retained very well and isn’t transferred across to the real world,” he says. “You’re also quickly conditioned to attend to lots of attention-grabbing signals, beeps and buzzes, so you jump from one task to the other and you don’t concentrate.”

Not only do smartphones affect our memory and our concentration, research shows they are addictive – to the point where they could be a ‘gateway drug’ making users more vulnerable to other addictions.

Smartphones are also linked to reduced social interaction, inadequate sleep, poor real-world navigation, and depression.

“Given what we know about the effect that smartphones and digital devices have on our brains, it’s scary to see how prolific their use is with children from a very young age,” says Williams.

Williams, who spent 10 years studying the neuroscience around people’s perceptions of facial expressions and how these impact our social interactions, became interested in the impact of devices on our brains when his own children started school.

“All of a sudden they wanted to play video games, because that’s what their friends were doing – and the school introduced a bring your own device (BYOD) policy so we had to buy them an iPad,” he says. “I was just like: ‘ We shouldn't be doing this. It's not good for them.’ ”

Smartphones make us prone to addiction

Williams is currently contributing to a large study at Macquarie investigating the relationship between social media addiction, gaming addiction and porn addiction.

“All addiction is based on the same craving for a dopamine response, whether it's drug, gambling, alcohol or phone addiction,” he says. “As the dopamine response drops off, you need to increase the amount you need to get the same result, you want a little bit more next time. Neurologically, they all look the same.

“We know – there are lots of studies on this – that once we form an addiction to something, we become more vulnerable to other addictions. That’s why there’s concerns around heavy users of more benign, easily-accessed drugs like alcohol and marijuana as there’s some correlation with usage of more physically addictive drugs like heroin, and neurological responses are the same.”

Could a child’s smartphone act like a ‘gateway drug’? Many of the apps that are hugely popular on smartphones and devices tap into decades of neuroscience and psychology research funded by the casino and gambling industries, which are designed to be addictive, Williams says.

“Casino-funded research is designed to keep people gambling, and app software developers use exactly the same techniques. They have lots of buzzes and icons so you attend to them, they have things that move and flash so you notice them and keep your attention on the device.”

The more time that kids spend on digital devices, the less empathetic they are, and the less they are able to process and recognise facial expressions.

Williams was a Research Fellow at MIT when the iPhone was first released in 2007, and says the impact worldwide has been astounding. “Undergraduates at MIT hacked into the first locked iPhones within a few hours of their release, and some months later, Apple opened up the App store to developers.”

From invention to having 3.3 billion smartphones operating worldwide in just over a decade, the smartphone revolution has been phenomenal, Williams says – but the profound effects on our brains and their function are already emerging.

“A colleague of mine did a great study two years ago into the ‘phantom vibration’ syndrome, where mobile phone users who are accustomed to having their phone on vibrate mode, will think the buzz is still occurring even when the phone is turned off,” he says.

Around 90 per cent of US university students are thought to experience ‘phantom vibrations', so the researcher took a group to a desert location with no cell reception – and found that even after four days, around half of the students still thought their pocket was buzzing with Facebook or text notifications.

“Tech leaders Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both admit to restricting their children and teens access to technology including smartphones and tablets,” Williams says. “Why would you give a kid something that's just as addictive as gambling?”

Smartphones make us antisocial 

Williams says that digital interactions differ markedly from in-person responses – and that’s a worry because children learn to interact and collaborate by observing and mimicking others’ expressions and reactions.

Family matters: Adults as much as children can fall victim to smartphones and their negative effects, including poor social interaction.

“Collaboration is a buzzword with software companies who are targeting schools to get kids to use these collaboration tools on their iPads – but collaboration decreases when you're using these devices,” he says. “The more time that kids spend on digital devices, the less empathetic they are, and the less they are able to process and recognise facial expressions, so their ability to actually communicate with each other is decreased.”

We understand how someone feels and how they react to us, by looking at their facial expressions and their body language – but when people focus on a screen, they lose those cues, he says.

“There’s usually increased arguments because kids ostensibly collaborating on a screen don’t pick up subtle messages from the other person on their needs or ideas.”

Poor social interaction isn’t restricted to children, he adds: parents can also fall victim to screens which distract from their child’s activities or conversations, and most adults will experience this with friends and family members too.

Smartphones make us forgetful

There’s about 30 years of research showing that people who read something on a screen will remember 10 to 30 per cent less of the material compared to reading the same material on paper.

“We also know that if you learn something on an iPad you are less likely to be able to transfer that to another device or to the real world,” Williams adds.

Our brains can’t actually multitask, we have to switch our attention from one thing to another, and each time you switch, there's a cost to your attentional resources.

He says a series of studies have tested this with children who learn to construct a project with ‘digital’ blocks and then try the project with real blocks. “They can’t do it - they start from zero again,” he says.

Smartphones also constantly interrupt our train of thought with notifications and buzzes designed to get people to ‘multitask', he says.

“Our brains can’t actually multitask, we have to switch our attention from one thing to another, and each time you switch, there's a cost to your attentional resources. After a few hours of this, we become very stressed.” That also causes us to forget things, he adds.

A study from Norway recently tested how well kids remembered what they learned on screens. One group of students received information on a screen and were asked to memorise it; the second group received the same information on paper. Both groups were tested on their recall.

Unsurprisingly, the children who received the paper version remembered more of the material. But the children with the electronic version were also found to be more stressed, Williams says.

Smartphones mess with our sense of direction

Google Maps was first developed in Australia and Apple now offer a competing version. But growing research shows that our sense of direction and ability to connect with place, along with our memory, is being negatively affected by our smartphone use.

“Navigation uses the hippocampus, which is the same part of the brain that we use for episodic memory which is our recall of what happened, when and importantly – where,” Williams says.  “We remember events in a serial way, based on what we were doing at the time.”

The famous ‘London taxi driver experiments’ found that memorising large maps caused the hippocampus to expand in size. Williams says that the reverse is going to happen if we don’t use our brain and memory to navigate. “Our brains are just like our muscles. We ‘use it or lose it’ – in other words, if we use navigation devices for directions rather than our brains, we will lose that ability.”

One study tested two groups of university students on a campus tour, one group using a paper map and the other their smartphones. Not only did the students with paper maps have a better recall of place – they also felt more emotionally connected to the campus. “The other students weren't attending to what was around them and they weren't establishing that episodic memory about where things are and what's happened during those periods.”

Smartphones make us sleepless, friendless and depressed

The knocks just keep coming - numerous studies also link smartphone use with sleeplessness and anxiety. “Some other interesting research has shown that the more friends you have on social media, the less friends you are likely to have in real life, the less actual contacts you have and the greater likelihood you have of depression,” says Williams.

A new US study of more than 500,000 adolescents has shown a huge increase in depression over the past five years in adolescent girls. “There is also a direct correlation between suicide and amount of screen use.”

Smartphones impact our empathy and social adeptness, too, he says, with scary data showing that 12-month-old children whose carers regularly use smartphones have poorer facial expression perception.

“That’s because we learn how to be empathetic and how other people think by observation and mirroring. When you are talking to someone and the muscles in their face contract slightly towards a smile, you will subconsciously reflect that, slightly smile so that you get the same emotional response. But to learn that – you have  to be watching and looking at other people.”

Williams is a fan of removing smartphones from schools – and says that rising alarm over the side-effects of device use is a wake-up call for adult users too.

He says that turning off software alarms and notifications, putting strict time limits around screen use, keeping screens out of bedrooms, minimising social media and replacing screens with paper books, paper maps and other non-screen activities can all help minimise harm from digital devices including smartphones.

“We need to teach our kids to be innovative and creative, empathetic and curious. And being on a device is never going to teach you that.”

Professor Mark Williams is a neuroscientist in the Department of Cognitive Science, Faculty of Human Sciences.


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