Effects of Smartphones on Cognition

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Updated: May 16, 2022
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Category: Adolescence
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Today, there is much debate over the impact of smartphones and technology on the cognitive abilities of present-day society. It is almost impossible to avoid technology, as society is engrossed by the latest smartphones, apps, digital devices, etc. As a result, there are hundreds of claims spreading across the internet, popular news media, and pop culture books, describing some form of relationship between technology use and cognition. These range from positive to negative views in regards to technology, and they explore a variety of impacts, including memory, attention, and delayed gratification.

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While some of these arguments are supported by scientific evidence and data, many are not. With limited research into the effects of technology on cognition, it is important to recognize the unknown implications of technology and not fall into fabricated, unsupported claims. Thus, this essay will analyze a claim made on Thrive Global about smartphones and memory and evaluate its relationship between the claim and the scientific evidence from which the article draws upon.

Dr. Patricia Fitzgerlad’s article “Is Smartphone Addiction Ruining Your Memory?” on Thrive Global claims that distraction from cell phones makes memories more difficult to form, and phone usage has taken away the social aspects of memory formation and retention (Fitzgerald, 2018). Fitzgerald, a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine, made this claim after noticing a trend of more patients in their 30s, 40s, and 50s seeking help with memory issues. Although her primary focus concerns memory and digital amnesia, she details subtopics. These included multi-tasking, distraction, internet usage, and device addiction in relation to intelligence, memory, social aspects of memory formation and retention, and sleep, respectively. In all of these aspects of cognition, Fitzgerald claims that technology impairs them. She advises readers to use smartphones less in efforts to improve memory challenges.

Aside from her personal observations, Fitzgerald references different scientific studies to explain and support her claim. These include a technical report to a commercial entity, an experimental research design, and a systematic review. While Fitzgerald pulls information and statistics from these to support her claim, not all of them directly support her claim. Moreover, some of these source studies have limitations and flaws, creating hesitation of the purported causal relationship between technology and memory. Thus, the overall quality and contents of these source studies do not necessarily align with Fitzgerald’s argument, making it difficult for readers to trust the validity of her claim.

Fitzgerald starts her article entry referencing a statistic from cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab. She states, “I started researching and sure enough ‘digital amnesia’ is a real issue. In fact, according to a recent survey…, 44% of the 1000 people surveyed between the ages of 16-55 said their Smartphone serves as their memory” (Fitzgerald). This statistic was part of a study done by Kaspersky Labs to better understand how digital devices and the internet affect the way consumers recall and use information today, in relation to cognition and memory. The report demonstrates the potentially risky phenomenon of Digital amnesia and the growing dependence on the internet as a source of information. This study was originally completed by research firm Opinion Matters upon commission from Kaspersky Labs. Research methodology included surveying 6,000 consumers, aged between 16 and 55+, split equally between male and female, with 1,000 from each of the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Benelux (Kaspersky Lab, 2015). The quantitative research included survey questions, such as the ability to remember numbers without looking them up, the emotional impact of losing data or access to data on smartphones, behavior related to internet searches, etc.

The results of this study reveal that many people, particularly younger consumers, use devices as their primary source of knowledge and default storage space for their most important personal information, including contacts and images. In addition, the findings show that the majority of digital consumers are unable to recall critical contact details and suggest a direct link between data available online or on a device and a failure to commit that data to memory. For example, results show that 53% of those surveyed could not recall their children’s phone numbers, 90% could not reach their children’s schools, and 51% could not get hold of their place of work. Moreover, results indicate the growing dependence on the internet as a source of information, as 61% of those surveyed said they need answers quickly and simply do not have the time for books (Kaspersky Lab, 2015).

This study’s findings support Fitzgerald’s claim and align with the notion that smartphones do impair cognition. However, there are flaws and limitations in this source study that might make one less certain about the purported relationship between technology use/exposure and memory. Because this is a technical report to an agency or commercial entity, results may be skewed to best fit Kaspersky Lab. As mentioned previously, Kaspersky Lab is a cybersecurity company. Thus, it is understandable as to why they are interested in seeing how much technology affects individuals’ day-today-lives and its importance because it could then boost business.

For example, Kaspersky Lab claims, “Kaspersky Lab is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to, and empowering them to tackle those risks” (Kaspersky Lab, 2015). In other words, if more people are dependent upon their technological devices, there is more demand for cybersecurity companies like Kaspersky Lab. Aside from this, there is no exact scientific evidence proving the effects of smartphones on cognition, as this is a survey and is based on people’s opinions and feedback. These results do not demonstrate the direct impacts of technology on cognition, but rather one’s thoughts on the matter. Thus, because there were no scientific tests done to corroborate the survey findings (e.g., conducting memory tests), there is no scientific backing to support the results. Lastly, the reliability of the survey data is subject to scrutiny. For example, respondents may not have provided accurate, honest answers or been fully aware of their reasons for any given answer. Therefore, there are elements missing from this study that if included in the future, might better support Fitzgerald’s main claim.

Aside from the Kaspersky Lab study, Fitzgerald also references a systematic review of publications exploring the relationship between smartphones and various cognitive domains. This review is found in a scientific peer-reviewed journal and utilized a review approach, where researchers analyzed and examined a variety of representative publications exploring associations between technology usage and cognitive domains. The authors analyze a variety of articles exploring the association between technology and cognition, only to demonstrate the lack of empirical research on the cognitive impacts of smartphone technology and how results remain contradictory and inconclusive (Wilmer, Sherman, & Chein, 2017). Thus, this study does not support the media claim, as the researchers do not support either side of this technology debate since research is limited and contradictory. While Fitzgerald vehemently supports the view that smartphones have a negative impact on cognitive functioning, this study does not support this.

One of the studies analyzed within this systematic review is an experiment concerning the effects of peer influence on neural and behavioral responses to social media, specifically the action of liking. This experiment was a peer-reviewed study published in Psychological science and utilized an experimental, controlled design. Researchers developed a novel fMRI paradigm to simulate Instagram and measured adolescent females’ behavioral and neural responses to likes. Participants’ brains were scanned while viewing a variety of images (e.g., risky vs. non-risky behaviors, neutrals, participants’ own pictures, etc.), and participants had to decide whether they liked each image using the criteria they would normally use on Instagram. Results from this experiment indicated that the popularity of a photo had a significant effect on the way that photo was perceived; participants were more likely to like a photo if that photo had received more likes from peers, even if it portrayed risky behaviors (Sherman, Payton, Hernandez, Greenfield, & Dapretto, 2016). Moreover, participants exhibited greater brain activity for photos with more likes. These regions included areas in social cognition and social memories, including the precuneus, medial prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus, as well as the inferior frontal gyrus (Sherman et al., 2016). In addition, analysis suggested that neural circuitry regarding the brain’s reward system is implicated in the experience of receiving positive feedback on one’s own images as well as viewing other people’s image that have been endorsed by peers (Sherman et al., 2016). Thus, these results demonstrate possible mechanisms and areas of the brain underlying peer influence during adolescent development.

Although Fitzgerald does not directly reference this experiment, this study relates to her claim. Results from the experiment seemingly support Fitzgerald’s claim, as they demonstrate that social media and likes have implications on neural systems. Moreover, Fitzgerald references a similar idea in her article, stating, “The addictive nature of the smartphone has to do with the dopamine that’s excreted by the brain when we check social media, news feeds, email, etc. That dopamine gives us a feeling of “reward” and keeps us coming back for more” (Fitzgerald, 2018). Thus, both of these concepts demonstrate the impact of social media on cognitive functioning, specifically reward systems. However, the experimental study does not relate to Fitzgerald’s claims of impaired cognition due to technology, since the study focuses solely on peer pressure and reward processing. Therefore, a relationship between this study and Fitzgerald’s claim could only be established if researchers further analyzed the effects of likes and social media on memory performance. For example, if researchers elaborated on the effects of peer pressure on memory and attention through further experimentation and fMRI scans, then the purported causal relationship would be strengthened.

In conclusion, the claims made by Fitzgerald are not substantially supported by the body of evidence she pulls from. While the Kaspersky Lab report includes adequate survey results to support her claim, it appears to be flawed and skewed. Moreover, the systematic review does not support her claim, but rather, indicates that there is not enough data presently available to support any claims regarding the relationship between technology and memory. Furthermore, more research must be conducted in order to support either side of this argument, like that of Sherman et al. Thus, the exact relationship between technology and cognition will remain unknown until more research surfaces. However, as technology and studies advance, researchers get closer to solving this paradigm. In the meantime, articles, like Fitzgerald’s, will continue to be published in the popular news media, and it is the responsibility of readers to look into claims and research before going to throw away their phones, devices, etc.

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Effects of Smartphones on Cognition. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/effects-of-smartphones-on-cognition/