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How Much Does Your Phone Affect Your Memory?

Next time you’re at the airport, take a look at the gate of a departing flight. Or a group of people waiting at a bus stop. Or just a long line of any sort, be it the bank or the DMV. No matter where you look, there’s one thing you will inevitably find: people of all ages, heads bent, eyes locked on their phones. 

It’s a phenomenon that has been growing steadily in the last couple decades. And the surge of smartphones has only exacerbated the issue. Today, it is estimated that more than the 5 billion mobile device owners use smartphones.

Of course, the word “phones” doesn’t really encapsulate what these technological marvels actually are anymore. Comedian Gary Gulman once said, “Calling an iPhone a phone is like calling a car a cup holder.” The implication, of course, is that your typical smartphone does infinitely more things than the landline many of us grew up with. 

Phones connect us to social media. They play videos. They allow us to watch TV. They let us communicate -- not only via our voices, but through text, video chat, and countless other trendy variations. We play games, check weather reports, read newspapers and books, listen to music -- all with a tiny rectangular computer that fits in our pockets. 

So what’s the drawback? 

A lot, actually. But today I’d like to focus on one particularly concerning side-effect for smartphone overuse: the impact it can have on your memory. 

For years, scientists have been digging into the data to uncover what smartphones can do to us, and emerging new research has shown us there’s reason to be concerned. A study by the researchers at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute found that increased exposure to mobile devices negatively affects the figural memory of adolescents. Figural memory helps us make sense of images, patterns and shapes and is located in the right hemisphere of the brain.

These concerns aren’t simply limited to smartphones, either. In today’s tech-driven world, we engage with multiple platforms of digital content at once, and it may be to our own detriment. A new study published in Nature suggests that “media multitasking” -- engaging with multiple forms of digital or screen-based media simultaneously -- may impair attention in young adults and worsen their ability to later recall specific situations or circumstances.

In other words, scrolling through your phone or texting while you watch TV is pulling your brain in too many directions for it to keep up. The study concluded higher reported media multitasking correlated with a tendency to experience memory lapses as well as decreased pupil diameter, a known marker of reduced attention. 

But please don’t think this is an issue that should only worry young people. Older adults are just as guilty and, crucially, equally susceptible to the dangers of “media addiction.” Studies have shown using a mobile device while trying to learn something new can reduce comprehension and academic performance. Interestingly, using a device did not affect performance on self-paced tasks, suggesting they may not be very different from any other distraction. Of course, given the significant usage a smartphone gets in our daily lives, they can be a tougher distraction to ignore. 

And one study found that using a mobile phone for just 5 minutes can cause significant memory impairment in humans. The study focused specifically on the effect mobile phones have in persons over the age of 60. Researchers took 64 healthy participants as well as 20 with mild cognitive impairment and gave them a list of 10 words to memorize and recite after using a mobile phone. 

The result? Healthy participants of the experimental group performed worst in the memory task after using the mobile phone. From the study: 

“The reduction of the performance in the task after using the MP was even higher for the age group of 60-80 years old in comparison with younger age groups, as well as for the individuals with MCI in comparison to healthy participants. Age was significantly negative correlated with performance in the task, while gender showed no significant correlation.”

Now, I’m not going to suggest you chuck your smartphone into the nearest body of water. For one, most of them are waterproof now. Second, a smartphone, like most things, can be fine when used in moderation. Some experts recommend trying to keep screen time for adults to 2 hours a day. If that’s not realistic, here are 5 tips from the Mayo Clinic that may help reign in your screen time:

  1. Be accountable. Whether it’s an informal agreement with a group of friends, family or through programs, the goal is to be intentional about reducing screen time.

  2. Be realistic. If you’re spending a lot of time on screens, start by setting smaller, more attainable goals. Instead of jumping right to the recommended one to two hours or less a day, start by cutting your current screen time in half.

  3. Go outside. Putting the phone down and taking a walk outdoors increases your endorphins and provides that feeling of happiness in your brain, boosting your mood and improving your physical health.

  4. Create a phone-free zone. Making family meals a phone-free zone is an easy way to start. An added benefit is that eating meals together as a family has been linked to decreased obesity.

  5. Co-use devices. Engage with or co-use screens with your kids while playing a game, an app or watching something on a screen. As a parent, you're busy, yet it’s important to take time to interact with your kids when screens are involved.

It can be tough to put the phone down, especially when there’s so much it can offer: social connectivity, breaking news, endless entertainment, and vital information. And when used properly, it can be a great tool! In fact, some experts suggest smartphones can help create and strengthen memories.

The key is, of course, moderation. Find a healthy balance and be okay with being “unplugged” for part of the day. Your brain will thank you!

IMPORTANT: To learn about my #1 solution to strengthen your mind, improve your memory and clear out that unwanted “brain fog” that hurts brain power, click here



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