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Scientists are trying to determine the effects of smart technology and constant Internet access on our brains, but that’s a matter only time will tell. As for the question of whether that effect is good, well, that’s one we can all answer for ourselves — and it’s one we can do something about.
Has Owning a Smartphone Changed You?
In the video above, teenagers watch a YouTube video about how smartphones have altered the way we all interact with one another. Unsurprisingly, everything isn’t necessarily better. You might have a similar reaction towards the way you’ve changed cognitively as well.
Take this example. Can you remember what life was like back before you got your first computer? Do you remember how you used to watch TV shows on cable, commercials and all? You couldn’t just search for a show and start watching it instantly. You couldn’t even search for a show to see when it was coming on. You remembered the time slots mentioned during the breaks, you studied TV guides, or you asked someone who knew. We all walked around with databases in our minds of the shows we liked, when they came on, what channels to turn to, and the numbers associated with each of them.
You could say that back in those days, all of us wasted a lot of time finding out the answers to questions that we can now get in an instant. But it’s also the case that the act of getting those answers helped us better retain the information. Why bother committing to memory things you can pull up as needed? Ten years have passed since the last time I had to remember someone’s phone number.
If you pause to think about just how much life has changed in the past decade or two, you might notice that you’ve lost skills or developed negative habits. Do you take the time to fix things now that you can order new stuff off the Web in an instant? Do you still read as many books now that social media apps provide you with a constant supply of new material? Do you plant yourself in front of the TV all day long now that you can watch every episode of your favorite show back-to-back and commercial free?
I can’t answer these questions for you. Some of you may feel that the changes in recent years have only made your life better. This may even be true. But if you do feel like you could benefit from changing some of the phone habits you’ve developed, here are a few ways you can start.
1) Use Apps That Provide True Utility
Apple, Google, and Microsoft all boast about the number of apps you can find in their app stores. But how many apps do any of us actually need? And how many of them are actually any good?
I can point you to any number of apps that sound good on paper. Heck, I do it all the time. But I can also say that I don’t use most of the apps I write about on a daily basis. That would be too time consuming. I love Android, but I don’t want that affection to come at the expense of my other relationships.
So what’s worth keeping around? Again, only you can answer that, but here’s some help. Which apps offer functionality that you would hate to have to do without? I’m not disabling the camera on my phone — it’s too useful. And now that I’ve grown accustomed to using a navigation app to get around, I’m not going back to printing out directions. I refuse to start carrying around a dedicated MP3 player again when I already have a gadget in my pocket that can do the same thing, and while I don’t spend all that much time browsing the Internet on my phone, I’m still going to keep a Web browser around.
Not having to drive around aimlessly looking for parking is a smartphone luxury I don’t want to give up.
But do I really care about the number of steps I take a day? Should I receive a notification the exact second breaking news happens somewhere in the world? Do I actually need to buy a product so spontaneously that I carry around a half dozen shopping apps? And now that I think about it, these fast food apps might even take a few years off my life.
It’s tempting to flood a brand new phone with programs to make it feel like we’re getting maximum use out of the device, but then we feel compelled to make ourselves actually use the stuff we’ve installed. Try getting rid of most of them and see which ones you miss.
2) Install Fewer Games (and Other Time Killers)
I can’t take my eyes off angry birds.
The games on your phone are significantly cheaper than the ones you can get for consoles, dedicated handhelds, and even the PC. They also don’t require buying separate hardware. But there’s a catch to mobile gaming that, at first glance, sounds like a plus. Your games are always with you.
A home console is attached to a TV, meaning you have to be at home to play them. Yet even with this restriction, it’s easy to go overboard and spend too many hours playing games. With a smartphone, you can entertain yourself every second that someone isn’t looking at you. It takes a lot of self control not to tap on that icon when you really want to get to the next level.
But now that you’ve spent countless hours flinging birds, crushing candy, and defending towers, are you any better off? Think about all the other things you wanted to do that you never got around to. You always said you wanted to be a better cook. There’s a stack of books you wanted to read. Getting a gym membership may be pricey, but there was that routine you wanted to try at home. This isn’t about someone else telling you that time spent playing games is time wasted. This is about you making time to do all the things you’ve been telling yourself you’ve wanted to do for years.
And really, there’s no reason to limit this to games. Do you find yourself flicking the Facebook icon just because it’s there, only to look away from your News Feed forty minutes later? Do you flick through images on Imgur and Tumblr the second you start feeling idle? You know which apps are your productivity suckers.
It’s okay to be bored. There’s nothing wrong with kicking around rocks while waiting on the bus. It’s perfectly fine to spend the time sitting on the toilet contemplating the color of the wall. It’s in these moments that our imaginations come alive. The reason so many of us do our best thinking in the shower is because it’s the one time we can’t spend distracting ourselves with something else.
3) Seek out Longer Content
“Kids these days have no attention span,” says every adult who has to deal with children. If it’s not them, it’s their parents, those absent-minded office workers who can’t stay focused on any one thing for long. Crap, I’m talking about you and me.
Much of the content on the Web is easily skimmed or consumed quickly. Smartphones have only exasperated the issue. Who would have ever thought people would go crazy over six-second-long videos? With all manner of entertainment crammed into a single device, content meant to be digested in seconds, and notifications coming in at any time, smartphones aren’t immediately conducive to maintaining concentration.
The thing is, you can find just as much long-form content in a smartphone as you can in any library, if not more. You just have to seek it out.
Books? You can read them on your phone. Magazines? Those too. And while the experience is different, the words are still the same. Not only that, you can find lengthy articles scattered across websites.
Just because much of the Web consists of short posts doesn’t mean you can’t find plenty of feature-length articles to occupy your time. When combined with the right service for reading websites later, you might find that your smartphone is actually your best tool for reading quality work. Having it always on you might actually mean you read more than you otherwise would.
4) Don’t Do Everything on One Device
Just because you can use your phone to replace your computer, books, magazines, newspapers, MP3 players, GPS units, cameras, TV, game consoles, alarm clocks, radios, calculators, and umpteen other things, that doesn’t mean you should.
Yes, it may seem space-saving and cost-cutting to use one device to do as much as possible, but think about how that means you’re spending your day. You get home from work and catch up on the news. Then you spend thirty minutes with a good book before watching two episodes of your favorite show. Then you play Fieldrunners for a bit before catching up on a few blogs and heading to bed.
And the entire time, you were staring at your phone.
Spending half an hour with a physical book and then putting it down to pick up a game controller provides you with two fundamentally different experiences. You hold them differently. They don’t feel the same. You alter how you sit.
It may not seem like much to switch from one sedentary activity to another, but at least you’re not physically doing the exact same thing all day. And you might not be so obsessive about a single device once you’re again spreading out your passions among different things.
5) Be Mindful of Where You Are
A simple rule of thumb is that if you’re out in public, not alone, and not sitting, then you probably shouldn’t be staring at your phone. Friends and colleagues don’t want to talk to someone who seems to be ignoring them. Drivers and other pedestrians don’t want to have to deal with people who aren’t watching where they’re walking.
And who wants to live in a beautiful world inhabited by people who would rather consume it through the images on portable screens?
What does this have to do with being dumb? Well, intelligence isn’t just about book smarts and memory span. Are you able to sustain an engaging conversation? Do you look people in the eye? Are you aware of the changes in the world around you? Did you intend to walk into that low-hanging tree branch?
Don’t fall into the trap of having your smartphone cut you off from the outside world and the people in it.
You Don’t Have to Get Rid of Your Phone
Your smartphone isn’t going to kill you or strip away all of your cognitive functions. It’s simply a tool, just like books and maps. But you should be conscious of the ways your own usage is hindering your life.
We don’t need to debate the science of whether smartphones are addictive to notice that many of us are addicted to the things. If you read the same book first thing in the morning, last thing at night, for hours after work, and in all of your idle time, we’d say you were addicted to that too.
It’s not bad to search for things when you have a question. Just occasionally supplement quick answers with in-depth information. It’s healthy for your brain to analyze problems and think for itself on a semi-regular basis. Don’t let it get out of shape.
Every now and then, step away from your smartphone. Don’t worry, you will see each other again. It’s just that too much time together isn’t good for any relationship. Go out for a walk. Check out a play. And when you get back, resist the urge to snuggle up right before bed. You will sleep better that way.
Just don’t think of this as forever. Your phone will still be there to capture those priceless moments. It will help you find your way home after making a wrong turn. It will let you video chat with family members on the other side of the world. Smartphones enrich our lives in ways that it would be a shame to give up just because, like everything else, they’re best when used in moderation.
I hope this has been stimulating. Now it’s your turn.
In what ways do you use your phone, and what changes would you make to tweak your life for the better? What recommendations do you have for others? Share them with everyone in the comments below!
Image credits: Friends looking at their smartphones via Shutterstock, Angry Birds by Vikramdeep Sidhu (Attribution 2.0 Generic), Smartphone teen by Pabak Sarkar (Attribution 2.0 Generic), Close up person using smartphone by Japanexperterna (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), Smartphone | St. Paul Hill – Malacca by John Ragai (Attribution 2.0 Generic)