My phone (probably) isn’t eating my brain

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I made a video about this!

How bad are our cell phones for our brains, our attention, our creativity? It feels like common sense to say that smartphones are a mixed benefit. OK sure, common sense and Bo Burnham agree, but how do we measure that?

I need focus to study, write, experiment, do something fun and creative, or just keep my mind on listening to a conversation. Making someone feel like I’m paying attention not just waiting for my turn to talk. And when I am focused, my phone going off is a frustrating distraction. And my phone is always with me. How badly does that affect my cognitive abilities?

I’m Dr. Peter Allen, I’m a bioanalytical chemist. Even in my field, pretty far from psychology, I saw cell phones invading everything. Papers since about 2010 trying to use the capabilities of smartphones to do biochemical tests – like tests for pathogens. And that’s great! That’s fine! My point is just that smartphones, apps, and the mobile internet are everywhere.

How do we define problematic phone use or phone addiction? How do we measure it? Is phone addiction a real condition? The question reminds me of that Dave Chapelle clip from Half Baked.

But we can take this a little seriously. I searched for real scientific papers that might help answer the big question: is my phone really poisoning my mind?

I ended up getting sidetracked into the scientific/medical debate over “is this a real addiction?” And that is a real issue: quote-unquote real addictions get resources, treatment, insurance. I put three recent reviews into the description where scholars asked that question and reviewed the available evidence. The answer seems to be “maybe?”[1-3]

OK, let’s leave that question aside. Maybe it’s addiction, maybe it’s just habit, but what is it doing to my ability to think? The hypothesis: “phones make us dumb” is too vague to test. Let’s get really specific: does a notification cause more errors in a task that requires concentration? That’s what Stothart et. al. measured.[4]

Here’s the task: a person watches a screen as numbers flashed. If they see a number that isn’t 3, they hit a button. If it IS a 3, no button. Like Jerry’s baloon game.

They measured the difference between groups. In the control group, there’s just that task. In the experimental groups, the people got interrupted by their phone. Some got a a call, others got a text message, and they were instructed to just ignore it. Keeping focused on this task for a long time is hard, so the error rate goes up over time. The error rate goes up MORE if the person is distracted by a notification. Thus, they conclude, notifications are distracting. Even if people try to ignore them.

That’s the EFFECT that was measured in one study. How big was it? That’s a statistical question: how different was the distraction effect, statistically, from the non-distracted? It was about 5-7% more errors than the control case.

But that’s just one study. Is that how most of the studies went? Here’s a meta analysis by Sunday et al. [5] called: “The effects of smartphone addiction on learning.” That seems promising. They looked at 44 similar studies and look at the overall effect size. So what does it say? Sentence 2: “Although numerous studies have examined the relationships between mobile phone use and educational outcomes, many such studies have yielded mixed findings.”


To try to come to some conclusions, they summarized and compiled all the data they could from the various studies that measured the effects on 148,000 total people in 16 countries. The result of the pooling of all of that information is this bell curve. Every study reported an effect. The kind of effect (good or bad) and the size of the effect is on the x axis. The number of papers that reported an effect like that is on Y. So, there were 4 studies that reported a big, good effect, and 9 studies that reported a big, bad effect. Most of the studies reported a small but bad effect.

OK, so phones are distracting and at least a little problematic. But they are also useful and fun. What can we do about all this? I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t give any professional advice.

I know some people are downgrading to “feature phones” (also known as dumb phones). But maybe most of us don’t have to go that far.

We might guess that the effects are not equal. Some people use their phones more than others. For a few people it borders on addiction. The effects might be bigger for them. Maybe people with addictive personalities might need to go for a dumb phone… but the rest of us can do less extreme options?

I silence non-urgent notifications, log out of distracting services, and I delete social apps and only use the web versions. As much as I can, I substitute less addictive activities when I’m bored (like reading a book, comic, or audiobook instead of Reddit/Social media). The price of such media CAN add up. But there are options like the public library and services like Project Gutenburg or Librivox.

[1]Panova, Tayana, and Xavier Carbonell. “Is Smartphone Addiction Really an Addiction?” Journal of Behavioral Addictions 7, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 252–59.

[2]Ratan, Zubair Ahmed, Anne-Maree Parrish, Sojib Bin Zaman, Mohammad Saud Alotaibi, and Hassan Hosseinzadeh. “Smartphone Addiction and Associated Health Outcomes in Adult Populations: A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 22 (November 22, 2021): 12257.

[3] Yu, Sheila, and Steve Sussman. “Does Smartphone Addiction Fall on a Continuum of Addictive Behaviors?” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, no. 2 (January 2020): 422.

[4]Stothart, Cary, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert. “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 41, no. 4 (August 2015): 893–97.

[5]Sunday, Oluwafemi J., Olusola O. Adesope, and Patricia L. Maarhuis. “The Effects of Smartphone Addiction on Learning: A Meta-Analysis.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports 4 (August 1, 2021): 100114.

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