The Mental Downside of Digital Devices

Prior to the funeral of a close relative, our extended family were sitting together immersed in thought. While it was a sad time, several young people were smiling as they texted on their phones. I quietly suggested this might not be appropriate and they popped the phones away. Ten minutes later the tapping and grinning had recommenced. These are good kids and I knew they weren’t deliberately being rude or insensitive. They were however showing signs of addiction — the conscious repeating of a behaviour, despite the harm caused to oneself or others, because it is pleasurable. In other words, you can’t stop doing it even though you want to.

Addiction to digital devices is a thing, and psychologists have now identified the trends and danger signs. Keep in mind this is different to engaging productively with a digital device when you choose to. As we approach year end, I reckon it’s a good time to reflect on how these devices are affecting our lives. I’m not so much referring to the negative effects of too much screen time on health or sleep, or the dangers of texting while driving. I’m more interested in the impact these devices are having on the quality of our thinking and relationships.

The conference where no one was there

As a facilitator and presenter, I have been observing how digital devices are increasingly being used by participants in meetings, conferences and workshops, not to take notes, but to stay connected to what’s happening outside the room. While we may think we can multi-task and listen to others while checking our devices, the brain can only attend to one thing at a time. What we actually do is switch our attention, often very rapidly, between things. Each time our focus goes to an email, a financial report or an update, we virtually leave the room. Not only do we miss what’s just happened, we lower empathy and trust with those around us. Neuroscientists have also found the use of smart phones in meetings actually reduces our smarts — dropping our IQ by around 10%. For people who are more addicted to using their phones, this dumbing effect is more pronounced.

In a recent conference, I counted around 15% of people on their devices during the opening two sessions. In the final two sessions I was amazed to count 80% of people looking down at their devices. I could also see how this was distressing the organisers and presenters. Yes, this was partly caused by a boring program (unfortunately too often the case) but I have also seen people unable to resist checking their phones when sessions are interesting and engaging. Take the franchisee who was texting while an interesting panel was underway at a conference. While you may think this is not a big deal, he was actually one of the panellists! I’m sure the woman next to him, who was answering a question from the audience, was not impressed as it really was the height of rudeness.

There is now clear evidence that digital devices are having a negative impact on the quality of our relationships. Just having a smart phone on the table during a discussion not only decreases cognitive functioning and the quality of communication, it also reduces feelings of trust and empathy. In one study, where researchers had placed a random phone on a bookshelf to the side of two people having a discussion, it significantly diminished their feelings of connectedness, as rated by the participants themselves.

The CEO who hung up everyone’s phones

I once ran a two-day Bootcamp for 95 field consultants who were part of a large North American franchisor. The CEO made everyone hang up their phones in pre-organised holsters by the door as they entered the room. The additional focus it gave the sessions was palpable and participant ratings showed this to be one of the most useful and enjoyable Bootcamp I’ve ever run.

I’m not saying digital devices are bad. I love my iPhone as much as the next person. I am just suggesting we should use these devices thoughtfully. When having an important meeting or conversation, don’t just put your phone on silent, put it out of sight. There’s also good evidence that going “device-free” for part of every day is good for our mental health. When I take my dog to the park, I’m amused to see most other owners staring down at their phones while their dogs are having the time of their lives running around and playing together. Since going device-free I’m pleased to say I’ve got smart and joined the dogs!

Photo of dog rolling in the grass.

Greg Nathan is a psychologist, author and an international expert on the franchise relationship. Connect with him on Google+ or Linkedin.

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