How Your Smartphone Is Making You and Your Teenager Dumb and Depressed!

smartphone making you dumber

Your smartphone. Smartphones are very cool devices. You can text, Snapchat, or email from anywhere. You can find your way through traffic using Google Maps or Waze. Find a good restaurant with Tripadvisor or Yelp. Take pictures and send them to all of your friends and family instantly. Nothing but upside right?

Wrong! Multiple research studies show that our smartphones are actually making us dumber, and maybe more depressed as well. Let’s look at some interesting facts. I’ve written previously about smartphone use and happiness but wanted to revisit the subject with more data.

Fact One: The average smartphone user looks at their phone 80 times a day, according to Apple.

Other reports suggest that people look at their phone 130 times a day. That means 30,000 to 47,000 times a year! Each of those glances distracts you from your current circumstances, and if you are trying to do something complex, or learn something, you are getting dumber 30,000 to 47,000 times a year! That’s a lot of time to lose. And since studies show it takes 25 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from distraction, that means you are losing 526 days a year, which is more than a year, which means that you are basically distracted and dumber all the time.

Fact Two: The closer your phone is to you, the dumber you get.

The University of California, San Diego conducted a study of 520 undergraduate students. The students took two tests of intellectual functioning.  The main variable in the study was where student put their phones. Some students put the phones in front of them on the desk, others put the phone in their pockets or purses, and others left their phones in an adjoining room.

The results: the closer the phone was, the dumber the person based on the test results. Phone in front of you, bad, phone in your pocket or purse, a little better, and phone in the next room, best results. And remember, this was with participants never checking their phones!

Fact Three: We don’t realize how much our phones impair our performance.

All of the participants in the UC study later said their phone was not a distraction, and that they never thought about their phones during the experiment. This shows we don’t even recognize the damage our phones are doing to our minds.

Fact Four: Smartphones bring down college grades by one whole letter grade when brought to class!

Researchers at the University of Arkansas found that those students who left their phones at home scored a full grade higher on material presented in the classroom than those who had their phones in class. It did not matter whether the students used their phones or not. In another study from the U.K. found that when schools ban smartphones, test scores go up a lot, with the worst students benefiting the most.

Fact Five: Your smartphone makes you worse at relationships as well.

Another study from the U.K. had 142 people divided into pairs and asked to talk in private. Half had a phone in the room, while the other half had no phone. The pairs then rated each other for affinity, trust, and empathy. “The mere presence of mobile phones,” the researchers reported in 2013 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” and diminished “the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”

Fact Six: It Is Worse For Teenagers

According to Neilson, teenagers send and receive 3,339  texts per month, which is about 7 texts per hour, or one text every 8.5 minutes. Actually, it is worse. Let’s assume that most teens don’t text during classes. That means outside of class, they are texting about 12 times an hour, or once every 6 minutes.

iphone woman

This can’t be good for learning or memory.  Imagine you are trying to learn something hard, and every 6 minutes someone asks you a question and you have to respond. How’s your performance? And since we know that distraction lasts 25 minutes, that basically means that all teenagers are distracted every minute that they are awake and not in class.

What’s even worse is that smartphone usage also affects happiness. The Monitoring The Future Survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has collected data on 10th graders and 12th graders for decades. They asked teens how happy they are and how much time they spend on various activities including non-screen activities like socializing and exercise, and screen activities such as social media, browsing the web, or texting.

The results? All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness! Eighth graders who spent 10 or more hours a week on social media were 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy. Even those who spent six hours a week on social media were still 47% more likely to say that they were unhappy. And even more ominously, the more time that teenagers spent looking at screens the more likely they were to report symptoms of depression. Teens who spent three hours a day or more on electronic devices were 35% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide.

Here are a few somewhat radical suggestions:

  1. This one teenagers will really hate. What if parents took away smartphones from their kids, and gave them flip phones, for phone calls only? Turned off texting on the phone. I suspect the average teenager’s grades would go up a grade. Not to mention better learning and memory. Flip phones would allow teenagers to call their parents for a ride, thus having much of the convenience factor without any of the negative smartphone factors.
  2. If this is not practical then I would recommend that parents take smartphones from their children when they arrive home from school, put them in a locked drawer, and only give them back the next morning. Certainly, there should be no access to smartphones while studying or doing homework. When children have finished their homework and are in relaxation mode, they can have limited access to their smartphone, but only until a reasonable hour because the use of smartphones before bedtime is very disruptive to sleep.
  3. For adults, leave your phone in your car trunk when having dinner out. You’ll connect with your dinner partner much better.
  4. For families, all smartphones, tablets, laptop computers go away before every family meal. Unless you are a physician on call, nothing is so important that you can’t put away your smartphone and have a nice family dinner.
  5. Finally, consider a digital device Sabbath. Orthodox Jews do not use any digital devices during Sabbath, which starts Friday night and ends Saturday night. All of us should emulate this, and pick a day on the weekend which is a digital-free day.

I am reminded of the first time I met my friend Fred Luskin, a psychologist who studies stress and forgiveness. I was attending a workshop he led. At the beginning, he asked everyone to take out their smartphones and turn them off. Not “turn off the ringer” or “set to vibrate” but actually power down the phones. Participants were shocked and resistant. It took a few minutes for him to get people to actually turn off their phones. At the time I wondered about this, but now I can see that it makes a big difference. When your phone is powered down, you are not anticipating anything from it, so that little bit of attention that is always focused on the phone is freed up for other purposes.

Now I’m going to turn off my computer and my phone, go outside, and take a walk…

How to Handle Mistakes–CBT Techniques for Gracefully Coping With Mistakes and Setbacks

Sometimes clients really integrate the learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and share it with family members. I was very moved when a client recently shared with me an email she wrote to her two teenage children. She gave me permission to publish it here, with a few identifying details deleted. Here it is:

To my dear children, please read this email because it will help you live life more peacefully.

I have lived my whole life worrying and I’m sick of it so I’ve spent the past months studying how to combat it. Here are some tips I’ve learned that should help you too.

As Dr. Gottlieb shared with me, here are key questions to ask yourself after making a mistake or facing something you think is devastating, in order to put the mistake into perspective

  • Did anyone die or get hurt? Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • Will I remember it in 1 or 5 years?
  • Did I lose a lot of money? (Defined as an amount that would truly change your way of life. ($100, $1000, or $10,000)
  • Is the mistake easily fixable with time or money or words?
  • What can I learn?
  • Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

OK, so the last point is the hardest.  Of course it always seems to totally matter and be catastrophic.  However, this brings me to the next step of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Sit with your thoughts. Then ask yourself what are your negative thoughts causing you to feel this way.  For instance, “I’m going to get into a horrible college, have a lousy job, be poor, get fired, be miserable, etc.”

THEN recognize these thoughts.  Are they all-or-nothing thinking?  Am I mind reading, assuming that others feel this way?  Am I being catastrophic, blowing this out of proportion?

Once you determine that this is really a distorted thought, then examine the thought in a healthier way.  You can step back and ask yourself on a scale of 0-100, how bad is this current event really?  Think of something tragic that would be a 100 (ie: parent dying, you getting cancer, etc.). Ugh.  Then compare the current event with the true 100 catastrophic event.

To help you determine the true number, ask yourself a series of “what if” statements for healthier thinking.  For instance:  “What if I don’t get an A…. I won’t get into a good college… if this is true then what if you don’t get into a good college…. I won’t get a good job…. if this is true what if you don’t get a good job…. I’ll be unemployed forever, be poor and miserable”…. Is this really true?  No.  You can think of people who didn’t attend college and are successful. You can even think of the opposite of people who DID attend a prestigious school and never worked outside of the home. You can think that there are ALL types of jobs that require all types of skills.

Then re-number your worry.  It’s probably much lower.  If not, review Dr. Gottlieb’s key points above and go through this exercise again. Most of the time the worry/event isn’t as bad as we think.

Finally, turn unproductive worry into product worry.  Unproductive worry is just thinking OMG, OMG, OMG!  That doesn’t help.  However, productive worry is problem solving.  You switch the energy into something productive and try to solve the problem.

And one last thing, remember that if you’re mind reading (believing that others will think negatively of you), no one really cares.  True, your parents and close ones do care about the important stuff, but truly no one looks at you.  Everyone is a self-centered, too busy focused on them to be concerned about you.  And if you assume that people are thinking something negatively about you, do the above steps, asking yourself to replace this with a more realistic/healthier thought and the what if exercise.  Remember, just because you may have judgmental thoughts, doesn’t mean everyone else is.  The first step is to stop judging others and be more compassionate.  Once you stop being so judgmental of others, you’ll start treating yourself nicer and have better self esteem.

I hope that you read and implement these tips so you can lead happier, more peaceful lives.  And just think, I’ve saved you hours and hours of reading, studying and discussing this stuff…  You get the Spark Notes version.  🙂

I love you both dearly.


Thanks Mom for sharing this with me, and with all of my readers….

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

Does TV Watching Increase the Risk of Depression in Teenagers?

A study published in the February 2009 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that those teenagers who watched more than 9 hours a day of television where more likely to become depressed as young adults.

The researchers used data from a larger study of 4,142 adolescents who were initially not depressed. After seven years of followup, more than 7 percent had symptoms of depression.

But only 6 percent of the children who watched less than three hours a day of TV became depressed, while more than 17 percent of those who watched 9 or more hours a day became depressed.

Interestingly, there was no association with playing video games, or listening to music, or watching videos. The association of TV and depression was stronger for boys than girls, and was constant after the researchers adjusted for age, race, wealth, and educational level.

So what does this mean? First of all, it’s important to put this into context. Nine hours of TV watching is a lot!!!! It means that these kids came home from school at 3pm, and turned on the TV, and kept it on until midnight! Or it means that they spent the entire weekend watching television. So these findings are not so surprising. Basically television was their entire life, and that means that they had no hobbies, no friends, and no sports or extra-curricular activities. All these are a prescription for depression. The kids who watched less than 3 hours of television a day had lives, which is probably why fewer of them got depressed.

So the moral of the story is make sure your children have balanced lives, and limit screen time (which includes video gaming) to 2 or 3 hours a day, or less. One good way to control television time is not to have television sets in children’s bedrooms. Have a main television in the living room, and that allows you to know when and what your children are watching.

Okay, now I am off to watch no more than two hours of my favorite television shows…

Copyright © 2009 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions