Digital amnesia – do smartphones damage your memory?

As we prepare to enter the holiday season, Apple fans are debating the pros and cons of iOS 16 and the new iPhone 14 with satellite connectivity. But is our reliance on and obsession with smartphones ruining our memory?

The days of remembering the telephone numbers of our friends and family are long gone because we do not need to retain information like this anymore. Our smartphones now contain our entire life as we store everything from shopping lists, work meetings, to-do lists, reminders, and finances in our pockets. There is a strong argument that in a digital world of information overload, we merely free up space in our brains to make way for more important things.

The rise of digital amnesia

It's widely accepted that we only remember things we pay attention to. But achieving this in a world of continuous distraction makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate and recall anything. Many believe that the technology that promised to make us more productive and give us more free time has transformed us into endlessly scrolling zombies who are blissfully unaware of our mobile devices' impact on our memory capacities.

In the US, the ongoing ABCD study is tracking over 10,000 children through to adulthood to better understand the real impact of social media and technology on children's brains. Early results through MRI tests suggest a relationship between excessive use of tech and cortical thinning. Although this is a normal part of growing up and aging, it's also something that is seen later in life and associated with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Neuroscientists are deeply divided on the topic of overdependence on smartphones damaging our memory or leading to dementia. But most agree that you have to use it or lose it. If you stop using your memory, it will decline, ironically increasing your dependency on your devices.

In 2015, Kaspersky Lab questioned over 6,000 consumers and learned there was a direct link between data availability that is a swipe away on a smartphone and a failure to commit that data to memory. Whether this will take us on a journey from digital amnesia to an augmented mind where humans and their devices work in partnership is still debatable. But despite what many self-proclaimed futurists tell you, nobody can predict the future.

The case against wrongful consumption

Before allowing a knee-jerk reaction to kick in, it's crucial to remember that smartphones have been transformative to those with neurodivergent conditions and pre-existing memory issues such as dyslexia and ADHD. For example, Trello boards and reminders can make navigating the modern jungle of our working and personal lives more manageable. Ultimately, smartphones are a tool that has empowered people to perform their roles and better function in society.

The problem is arguably less about the tech itself and more about our inappropriate consumption. Two years ago, when the global pandemic put people worldwide into lockdowns, many declared they would use this time as an opportunity to learn how to play a musical instrument or learn a different language. But the reality was that most chose to passively consume social media content, play video games, and binge-watch TV shows on Netflix. All of which use clever techniques to keep users perpetually distracted.

Have you stopped to think about how many hours of the day you spend interacting with a screen? Smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and televisions are all significant players in the war for your attention. In addition, the constant barrage of notifications continuously adds fuel to the fire by interrupting your attention and focus. So instead of beating yourself up about your memory woes, maybe it's better to disable some of the digital interruptions in your life and find a better screen-life balance.

Outsourcing "remembering" to your devices

Is it such a bad thing to store more memory in our pockets than in our heads? It's not the smartphones that are the problem here. It's inappropriate or excessive use and overreliance that is ultimately the personal responsibility of the user, not the device. Sure, social media apps from Facebook to TikTok are accused of using sophisticated algorithms to trap users in dopamine-seeking-reward loops. But we all have free will to delete these apps to set ourselves free from the tech designed to steal our time and focus.

Will your new smartphone damage your memory? Evidently, it’s not as simple as saying phones are destroying our capacity to remember anything, and despite the increasing number of studies, the jury is still out on this one.

However, maybe we need to reframe the problem and admit that our lack of attention damages our ability to remember even the most trivial things. It's safe to assume no one reaches the end of their life saying I wish I spent more time on my smartphone scrolling and clearing notifications. So with this in mind, I challenge everyone reading this to focus their attention on creating stronger neural pathways by daring to take tech breaks and focus on something more than your timeline.

The bigger problem is the constant feeling of being pulled in a thousand different directions and your brain feeling overwhelmed with the demands for your attention. By freeing yourself from the shackles of digital interruptions and the shiny allure of screens, maybe you can reclaim your focus and attention. Possibly even improve your memory.

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