Do you reach for your phone the moment you wake up and check your messages? Do you look at your phone when you wake up in the night? Are you a hard-core phone addict? At first the health experts feared radiation from phones could lead to cancer. Those fears were unfounded, however that is not to say that phones aren’t impacting our brain. They are, but in ways you might not have suspected. Firstly, it seems that the radiation may be hurting young people’s memories.
Mobile phones damage ability to remember
Swiss researchers studied 700 young people aged between 12 and 17; tracking their phone use and getting them to complete memory tests. Over a year, participants had to chart their phone use, as well as answer questions about their psychological and physical health. They also did online tests. Prof Martin Röösli from the University of Basel said the researchers then looked at phone use data from mobile phone companies. That meant researchers knew exactly how much time young people spent on phone calls.
The study found exposure to mobile phone radiation over a year hurt the development of memory performance in specific brain regions in adolescents.
“80 per cent of the absorbed radiation comes from holding the phone to the head,” said Prof Röösli. “The brain’s memory performance was more impacted when the phone was held to the right hand side of the head. That’s where the areas of the brain related to memory are located.
“Basically what we saw was the higher the absorption of radiation [by the brain] the more likely the development of memory in one year wasn’t as good as those who didn’t absorb as much,” Prof Röösli told the German news service, DW.
The researchers said the impact was ‘very subtle’, but the effects can be minimised by encouraging young people to hold their phone to the left-hand side of their head.
Prof Röösli also found that adolescents who use their phone a lot, are more likely to have disturbed sleeping patterns, but this is caused by changes to behaviour, not the brain.
Mobile phones change people’s behaviour
Mobile phones and screens crammed with notifications do impact on human behaviour more than physiology of the brain. More than 40 percent of people look at their phones within five minutes of waking up. 50 percent said they check them in the middle of the night. Basically people become ‘over-wired’. They don’t switch off.
Young people have been conditioned by mobile phones to constantly switch tasks. They go from messaging to emails to Snap Chat to YouTube. Research shows that younger people can process information faster than previous generations, and can transition from task to task more easily. However older adults could be better at focussing and learning due to a stronger attention span.
“I think we’re entering an era where different people of different ages have very different brains,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Attention Merchants. “That’s the new generation gap. And some of the advantage goes to older people.”
Remember, people now also tend to consume more than one media at a time. For example you might be surfing the internet and listening to the radio, or watching TV but also looking at your phone. A study of people in a room with a TV and a computer switched their eyes back and forth every 14 seconds — 120 times in 27.5 minutes.
“The brain starts learning how to switch rapidly from one task to another to another,” says William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at a Texas University and author of Teach Your Kids How to Learn. “It becomes a habit. But this habit conflicts with focused attentiveness.”
Many people seem to be obsessed with their phones. Have you noticed? In one experiment, 94 percent of people on a street using a phone didn’t see cash hanging from a tree. Other researchers have found phone pings from notifications distract people from concentrating on their work. People addicted to their phones also tend to be tenser and less relaxed.
Boredom is good for you
Prof Wu told the American AARP news site that because older people didn’t grow up with smartphones, they may be more practised at applying themselves intellectually.
“They are often better trained to be patient with complex tasks,” he said. “They can stand being bored for more than a second. I think the generation that is most at risk are the Millennials, who have zero tolerance for boredom.”
We all know that there is a certain amount of boredom that comes with learning tough new tasks, and younger people no longer have the ability to be bored. They can’t cope with it!
“Individuals in their 50s and 60s are quite adept at motivating themselves to stay focused,” said Harvard professor Joe DeGutis, who did a study on sustained attention.
“This motivated attention can result in — compared with younger adults — less mind wandering. We see the merits of sticking with a task until completion.”
Turn off your phone … or else
Would you believe that there is actually an organisation in the US called ‘Brick’ that insists members turn off their phone for an hour every day. You sign up to Brick and commit to this. The idea is that your phone must become a useless ‘brick’ for one hour a day. The members of Brick all testify that this is a very precious hour!
I sometimes like to go out without my phone. It feels liberating, and I consciously stay off it for hours at a time. I also find that relaxing. I encourage my daughters to keep their phone use in check, but have you ever tried to take a phone off a young person? It’s not a very easy thing to do. I think I’ve just found the subject of my next blog!
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