SNHU study asks: Are smartphones really destroying our brains? 

Monitor staff
Published: 6/17/2019 3:37:18 PM

In one of the least surprising findings of recent times, three years of research by a Southern New Hampshire University professor has found that college students use their smartphones a lot: Roughly five hours every day, nearly one-third of all time spent awake.

But that wasn’t the point of the work, which was published in a recent issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The interesting question is what all that use is doing to our brains over the long-term.

“There have been so many books and articles about how we may be relying so much on technology that we are losing some of our cognitive abilities ... but it hasn’t been well studied. I can count on one hand the number of people studying the lingering effects of smartphone usage,” said Peter Frost, a professor of psychology who oversaw the project.

The key word is “lingering.” Lots of research confirms our common-sense realization that cellphones are a massive distraction which interferes with short-term attention and memory. But do those effects last? Do they build up, creating a cascade of inattention that significantly alters the way we think, or do they fade away and leave our neural networks pretty much untouched?

That’s a really hard question to answer, because human beings aren’t lab rats that you can manipulate to create randomized study groups.

“It’s hard to get people to change their phone usage for long amounts of time,” admitted Frost, in what can only be considered a wild understatement.

But with the aid of a number of SNHU students, he decided to give it a shot. Here’s what Frost’s project did in three experiments spread out over three years.

First, they looked for a correlation between smartphone use and short-term cognitive changes, using 105 volunteer undergraduates from Southern New Hampshire University. (One surprising fact: The average age at which participants said they started using smartphones was 16½, which is older than I would expect.)

They used surveys of phone usage and some psychological tests – to the specific: Delay of Gratification Inventory; The Cornell Critical Thinking Test, Level Z; and Modified Means End Problem Solving questionnaire, Short Version – to see if people who used phones more often showed any effects.

They found some obvious negative effects. More phone use was correlated with delayed gratification and poorer social problem solving. Surprisingly, however, they also found that more phone usage correlated positively with some facets of deep thinking, including “greater capacity to make observations and judge the credibility of information,” and “improved ability to extract the deeper meaning associated with information.”

But as we all know, correlation is not causation. Maybe the patterns show up only because “people with certain cognitive characteristics are more prone to higher usage rates. Greater use of smartphones per se might not have caused a change in these cognitive abilities.”

So Frost followed with two projects which got people to change their phone habits, as much as humanly possible, to see what happened. In other words, the first study was passive and looking for simple correlations (when you see X, you’re likely to also see Y), while the next two studies were active and looking for causal relations (when you change X, you’re more likely to see Y).

Frost ran two causation studies, both with 50 undergraduates randomly assigned to “low usage” (less than two hours a day) and “high usage” (five hours or more a day) groups. He asked them to follow these patterns and take the psychology tests, and compared it to results in their normal usage patterns; the first study did this for a week and the second study for a month.

What did Frost find? Drum roll, please: For the one-week study, they found that the positive effect from the correlation study had turned negative, which sounds ominous – but for the month-long study, all the negative effects went away.

So smartphones aren’t making us dumber, after all. Hooray!

“This suggests that maybe it’s not as bad as we thought,” said Frost. “Plato feared that people would become forgetful using books. When the calculator came out people feared nobody would be able to do mental math. I wonder if our concern is more of a social phenomenon than it is a true cognitive phenomenon.”

But don’t celebrate too much. Frost acknowledges that the study is fairly small and encompasses self-selected groups of subjects. More importantly, effects that are seen after one month might have changed after another month or two.

Remember, the study found differences when it looked at immediate usage vs. one week of changed vs. one month of changed usage. Who’s to say that longer changes in smartphone usage patterns wouldn’t show a different result? “We think there’s a non-linear relationship,” said Frost.

The problem, as noted above, is that it’s impossible to get people to alter their smartphone use for any longer. In fact, eight out of the initial 58 subjects had to be dropped from the month-long study because they couldn’t keep away from their phones even for 28 days.

The papers puts the caveat this way: “It is also possible that we would find more or no effects associated with smartphones in relation to other critical thinking scales if we implemented longer intervals. However, there would have been practical challenges in that we might have lost many more participants if we placed restrictions on daily phone usage for longer intervals of time.”

So, the most we can conclude at this point is that if smartphones do alter our ability to analyze information or extract meaning, for better or worse, then the effect “appears to be, at best, temporary” and “the mechanism by which smartphones initiate this temporary change remains an open question.”

That seems a bit of a letdown for those of us who’d think of science always reaching astonishing conclusions. It would be more interesting to report “Study finds smartphones are destroying our brains!” But Frost is realistic about how actual science proceeds, because even a non-exciting conclusion can tell us something.

“This was a fun study because it’s something relevant to all of us. It’s just astounding how much smartphone use has shot up. It’s pervasive,” he said.

The study can be read online at snhu-externalaffairs.app.box.com/s/c52vj6c5d1sdj63iajayrni9yv1mv1mj.

Along with Frost, authors are then-SNHU students Patrick Donahue, Keith Goeben, Megan Connor, Hoong Sing Cheong and Aaron Schroeder.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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