Are smartphones making us more forgetful? They are according to studies and the problem even has a name –“digital amnesia.”
While it may sound humorous, it has serious implications for our mental health regardless if you are 18 or 81.
“Digital amnesia” because of our smartphones seems to be a real thing these days and it seems like things have only gotten worse in that regard since the Covid pandemic started in 2020 because so many people were isolated, stressed out, and exhausted, and they turned to their phones for an escape on social media and other things our devices offer.
In fact, 80% of people interviewed in 2021 by memory researcher Catherine Loveday said that their memories were worse than when the pandemic began.
Researchers are divided about what the digital amnesia that people seem to be experiencing will ultimately lead to as far as our memories are concerned.
“In today’s society, where we have Twitter, Facebook and other social networking technologies, memory becomes a social cognitive phenomena in which our technological devices allow us to be more highly coupled with friends, family and colleagues,” says Mike McNeese. “As a result, we engage information processing in ways we didn’t have before the advent of cellphones.”
Neese would know. He’s a former senior associate dean of Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and director of the Multi-disciplinary Initiatives and Naturalistic Decision Systems Lab,
Chris Bird is a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and he says thinks that using external devices to keep track of things actually makes our lives easier.
“I take a photo of my parking ticket so I know when it runs out, because it’s an arbitrary thing to remember,” Bird states. “Our brains aren’t evolved to remember highly specific, one-off things. Before we had devices, you would have to make a quite an effort to remember the time you needed to be back at your car.”
But professor Oliver Hardt thinks that our memories will just get worse if we stop using it like we are supposed to. Hardt says, “We use them for everything. If you go to a website for a recipe, you press a button and it sends the ingredient list to your smartphone. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.”
And Hardt thinks it will get worse and possibly lead to an increase in people with dementia.
“We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus. Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression and other psychopathologies, but also certain forms of dementia,” he states.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki even goes as far as to say that we have our faces in our phones so much that we’re missing out on big portions of our lives.
She says, “If we can’t remember what we’ve done, the information we’ve learned and the events of our lives, it changes us… [The part of the brain which remembers] really defines our personal histories. It defines who we are.”
And an ongoing study that is tracking more than 10,000 American children to adulthood argues that smartphones can even change our brains.
“It started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencil measures and an MRI, and one of their most interesting early results was that there was a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning,” says researcher Larry Rosen. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age.”
Of course, there’s more research to be done in this area, but that’s a pretty scary thought…
“Focusing on social interactions and engaging in something novel will keep the brain stimulated and the mind sharp,” states Nancy Dennis, Penn State associate professor of psychology.
And it’s more than just doing a crossword puzzle to stay sharp.
For Dennis, “novel” is the operative word when it comes to maximizing memory.
“If you do crossword puzzles all the time, that’s not time spent learning something new,” she said. “Unfortunately, it just makes you really good at doing crossword puzzles.”
Instead, Dennis suggests taking a dance class other some other physial activity as an alternative to crossword puzzles. “It’s a win-win because now you’re moving around and being socially engaged at the same time,” she said.
But if joining a dance class isn’t in the cards right now, don’t worry. It is probably more important to understand the long-term implications of digital amnesia.