Illustration: A man stares at his smartphone, his head filled with the logos of the apps he uses

Is smartphone use slowly changing our brains?

It's hard to think of a form of technology more ubiquitous than a smartphone. According to the 11th annual Cisco Visual Networking Index, by 2021, more people will have access to smartphones than running water or bank accounts. Millennials are often admonished by the older generation for their smartphone addiction. If you believe the word of a bunch of grouchy seniors, Apple is as intellectually poisonous as Mao's China and iPhones are about as dangerous as crack cocaine. Typical vitriol from the same silver-haired crowd who text at a rate of three characters a minute... right?

Well, maybe not. As it turns out, smartphones really have changed the way we think, in ways you might never have realised. Even the simple luxury of having Google available at all times has had a profound effect on our collective neural development. So should we blame Steve Jobs for the decline or our mental faculties? Or have smartphones actually benefited our brains?

A woman using an iPhone to text. Credit: Getty

One of the most interesting aspects of smartphones, in psychological terms, is the sheer amount of attention that smartphone users lavish upon them. According to a study published by the Public Library of Science in 2015, 23 adults, aged between 18 and 33, spent an average of five hours a day on their phone. This time spent was then broken up into a total of 85 daily sessions. When the participants were quizzed on their smartphone usage, they consistently underestimated themselves by half.

Our phones employ a number of visual and audio cues to condition us, just like Pavlov's salivating dogs, to stop what we are doing in reality and pay attention to networks and cyberspace. Every flash of the screen, every blinking light or text tone or buzzing vibration is a way of diverting our attention. It's got to the point where we are now caught in tic behaviour: always expectant, always checking and rechecking our phones. For some people, this anxiety has graduated into a full-blown phobia - one that's so debilitating that medical professionals have been forced to sit up and take notice.

"Nomophobia" refers to the irrational fear of being out of cell phone contact, or being away from our phones for an extended period of time. Symptoms consist of respiratory alterations, trembling, sweats, perspiration, disorientation and nervousness. A survey conducted by SecurEnvoy showed that that 77 per cent of young people reported low-level anxiety when they were separated from their mobile phones. According to the same report, psychological predictors in someone suffering from this phobia were attributes such as "self-negative views, younger age, low esteem and self-efficacy, high extroversion or introversion, impulsiveness and sense of urgency and sensation seeking."

So smartphones are clearly addictive and demand our attention, like an irresistibly cute puppy pawing at us from the floor, which has a knock-on effect on our concentration. But are phones also affecting our memory? Apparently, the fact that we have more-or-less unlimited access to search engines means that our powers of recall and cognition have been worsened. It's not that we're getting stupid: we're just more likely to devote brainpower to the wording of our search enquiry than to actually solving the problem ourselves. According to a 2011 paper, experiments showed that people who have internet access made less effort to remember things. It used to be that we would rely on peers or relations to recall information for us, and if stumped, we could consult experts, or so-called "trans-active memory partners."

But now, with smartphones providing us with unlimited internet access, we have no need for human interaction when dealing with pesky conundrums. If we want to know the name of an actor in a movie we saw 10 years ago, who invented the vacuum cleaner, or how to spell the word "bureaucracy", all we have to do is consult our magic answer machine. As co-author Betsy Sparrow put it: "We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools. The experience of losing our internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows."

Phones are even beginning to change our brains on a biological level. Recently, researchers from the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich have used electroencephalography to investigate and compare the brain activity of smartphone users and non-smartphone users. These EEG readings revealed an unexpected difference in the action potential and resting potential of motor neurons; particularly those related to hand and finger control. Based on electrical readings delivered via diodes attached to participants' heads, smartphone users had more EEG brain activity in response to mechanical touch on the thumb, index and middle fingers: the fingers most often used in conjunction with touch screens.

So is there any hope left for the human race? Or are we simply destined to spend the rest of our lives staring at a screen? Well, phone use isn't necessarily a bad thing. In moderation, smartphone use can have a positive impact. Experts call this the "Goldilocks spot". According to researchers Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, a survey of 120,000 British 15-year-olds found that moderate tech usage correlated with positive mental health. There was only a negative correlation for very heavy users: more than five hours a day in total.

We can't uninvent smartphones: the technology is here to stay. But we can train ourselves to relinquish bad habits and use them more responsibly. Learn to put your phone down or leave it in your pocket, maybe even switch it off for an hour or so every day. Because there's a time and a place for Whatsapp and Instagram, and sometimes you just need a few seconds to breathe, and the resolve to ignore the puppy begging for attention.


Featured illustration by Egarcigu