Four Big Reasons Smartphones Aren’t Making Us Smarter

man staring into his smartphoneNext time you’re out and about in public, try this simple observation “experiment”: Look at all the people around you. How many are head down in some sort of mobile device? How many are tapping and scrolling and thumb-typing away feverishly, tuned out from everything else around them?

The more I look around the more I see people connected and “plugged in” in places and situations that just a few years ago you wouldn’t have. This past week I had three experiences that put together, have me pondering how much better off we really are with all these things.

  • On Tuesday, I picked up my daughter from gymnastics class. Arriving a few minutes early, I headed to the waiting area where there in front of me 75% of the parents were glued to either a smartphone or iPad. I imagine most got there within the past few minutes too.
  • On Thursday, my wife and I were attending a concert. As we sat in the theater waiting for the show to begin, we scanned the growing crowd and came to the conclusion that we could have been the only people within sight who weren’t fiddling away on a smartphone. Even groups of people — who clearly came to the show together — were all glued to the glowing orbs of their screens instead of talking to one another.
  • Then today, as our family sat in the movie theater waiting for The Lorax to begin, we scanned the crowd and once again, so many people were plugged in to their phones. The example that upset me most was the family of four sitting two rows in front of us. Mom and dad sitting on the ends with their kids in the middle. Dad was playing a game on his smartphone; mom was surfing some site. So much for family bonding.

Full disclosure: I do not own a smartphone or an iPad. Sure, I could be easily wooed by the hype. I could probably create dozens of would-be scenarios where these things could do something for me. But you know what? For 38 years, I’ve survived without one and done just fine. I refuse to let some company create this false need for me. I refuse to fork over hundreds of dollars to buy one and be tied to a monthly service payment that borders on outrageous. Not when there are so many people out there who can’t put food on the table and a roof over their heads. As Leo Babauta puts it, these things are just marketing devices — ones that we all have the power to walk away from.

The (Un)intended Consequences of Being So Connected

According to Forrester Research, 50% of all mobile phones in use in the U.S. are smartphones with this number expected to reach 75% by 2016. The total number of U.S. smartphone users topped 100 million early in 2012. There are over 500,000 apps in the Apple App Store. Over one million apps are downloaded every 49 minutes. Scientific studies have shown how using technology can elicit the same kind of euphoric response in the brain that you might see in a drug addict. That’s a lot of connected people doing a lot of stuff on their phones and getting a lot of satisfaction from it.

But what is all this connectedness costing us? I’m not objecting to technology in principle, but when it permeates every nook of our existence and begs for every waking moment of our being, I fear it is having a negative effect on our selves, our families and our culture. Here are four broad ways why I feel smartphones (or iPads or any other mobile device that connects us) are not making us any better:

  • They are replacing human-to-human interaction. The conversation is becoming a thing of the past, a thing of nostalgia harkening back to a time when looking someone in the eye when talking to them connected spirits in a way no machine could ever do.
  • They are making us too reliant on an artificial intelligence and not our own. Just like muscles, our brains need to be worked too to stay in tip-top shape. Calculators were the first shot across this bow. Now, when “there’s an app for that”… and that… and that… we’re giving up more and more opportunities to use our own brains and intelligence to carry us through the day.
  • They are distracting us from bettering our selves and our world. Your phone can’t replace exercise or meditation. It can’t replace hands-on learning of a new skill. And it sure can’t replace volunteering in your community. Imagine if you replaced 15 minutes of screen time with something that actually gave you a real return on your investment.
  • They are separating us from experiencing the Heart of Nature. Sure, you could be outside using your device, but in that scenario Nature is nothing more a high school drama club stage backdrop. We must make ourselves truly present in order to open our hearts to experience all of what the natural world can offer us and rediscover our innate connection to it.

Again, technology isn’t inherently bad. Technology has allowed us to do amazing things. We just need to realize when that line that separates help from hinder is getting close — and then have the fortitude to stay clear of it. For our sake and the sake of all those we hold dear.

Be well,

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15 Responses to “Four Big Reasons Smartphones Aren’t Making Us Smarter”
  1. Our family too has yet to purchase an I -phone or -pad. My kids are now 13, 11, and 8. The 8 year-old is still lives in a pleasantly clueless bubble about these things. Doesn’t even ask about them. However, it’s harder for our 11 year-old son. Most of his friends have access to these devices and play a lot of video games on them. And according to our son all of his friends but one additionally own a Wii, something we also don’t own. We tell him he’s allowed to play these games at other kid’s houses (and he definitely does.) -But he still feels left out.

    However, we worry that if we brought video games and the Wii into our home, this son in particular would never read a book again without being forced. Even though it’s been hard to hold off (and we probably won’t hold off forever) my husband and I have seen this son begin to read more and more for enjoyment, especially over the last two years. This past year he’s begun reserving books at our local library when they aren’t available. This may sound like a small thing to other people, but it’s big for us because our parental intuition knows it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t held fast to saying no to other distractions.

    Meanwhile our 13 year-old has always been more of a reader, and although he wishes we had more technology in our home, he’s doesn’t challenge us about it. Each kid is so different.

  2. Tricia says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I got my first smart phone only a few months ago. I resisted and resisted – but then started working from home and on the road more and needed an easier way to connect with colleagues. I’m struggling to ensure the smart phone is a helpful tool and not something that wastes time and disconnects me from what’s important.

    I’m finding the smart phone actually decreases my online time(at this stage) – because I get on the computer less to ‘quickly check emails’. But I do find myself turning to the phone to fill spare moments more and more. I am worried that it is starting to become a problem so am becoming more conscious of when I’m using it. I might have to set myself some rules shortly…

  3. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Tricia // I think having such an awareness is a great first step towards figuring out if you need set those “rules” for yourself. Like everything else, we can approach our use of technology with mindfulness — and it sounds as if you’re practicing it. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just approach it with some amount of neutrality and objectiveness. If you feel it’s tying you up too much, make some changes and see what it results in. Maybe you can find some other things to fill those “spare moments” — simple meditation, some exercise, reading (a book or magazine), etc. Hang in there!

  4. Dave Fisher says:

    Felt compelled to leave a comment on this post.
    Recently, there have been a rash of muggings and assaults on the Brown U. campus. I am reticent to say that these attacks we’re the victims fault, but every one of the victims said that they were A) talking on the phone or B) texting. These so -called smart devices have reduced, what is known in military terms as, situational awareness. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve almost killed or maimed people while driving because they have walked into a crosswalk, against the signal, without even looking up, never mind both ways.
    I think that you’d agree that, for all the ways that we now have to connect, we are increasingly disconnected.
    Cheers and stay connected.

    Dave Fisher

  5. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Suzita // Thanks so much for sharing. Our kids are 9,7 and almost 3. Since we didn’t have TV for several years (now we do have one, but no cable), they learned early on the fun that comes from other types of play. We’ve been fortunate that the 9 and 7 year old have become voracious readers (our 9 YO is on Book 6 of the Harry Potter series now). Two years ago, we purchased a Wii as a “family gift” after thinking long and hard about it. From the get-go we established very concrete rules and when it could be played and for how long. I believe it was because of that approach that it has not become a distraction for the kids. They still much rather read or go outside to play.

    That said, as they get older, I’m sure there will be more social challenges we need to face, especially as it relates to technology and gadgets. At this point, I find myself often having to explain pop culture references to my kids that they may hear about at school from friends who watch cable TV. I don’t mind doing it because I would rather explain what “American Idol” is then have them be inundated with all the marketing and commercials that comes with cable TV.

  6. William F. Gerlach says:

    Hello Bill,
    You are absolutely correct about individuals getting carried away with texting and gaming etc. out in public, in restaurants and so many other places–their heads buried down- we are losing the importance of talking with one another.
    It is a sorry thing to see this happening, it’s good to read your blog and others that comment -that GET IT also.
    Keep up the good work.

  7. J. Zombie says:

    A few months back my mobile contract was up and I was eligible for a new phone. I obtained my first smartphone not because I wanted one, but because it was the only option available. Being highly technical, I was determined to get the most out of it. I feel that 99% of all smartphone users only use 1% of its features. So I did. Gmail, check. Calendar sync, check. RSS, Twitter feeds, Apps… you get it.

    Instead of an oversized clunky case to protect my new phone, I opted to get GhostArmor applied at our local mall. This process requires the phone to be sealed and without contact for a day. There were quite a few orders that day so I had to leave my phone for 3 hours during the wait. With my wife and kids with me I didn’t see the issue between lunch and errands. So no problem…or so I thought.

    What happened during that 3 hour period was eye opening. After a few minutes had passed, I instinctually reached in to my pocket for my phone. Initially, I laughed it off. It was a feeling similar to reaching in your pocket and not finding your car keys, until you remember that you left them somewhere else. As time passed I found that the behavior continued every 20 minutes or so. There was no reason for me to use my phone, yet I kept reaching for it. But to do what? I couldn’t come up with a good answer to that question, except to either “do” or “check” something.

    Prior to this experience, my wife would frequently point out how much I would use my phone, you could call my response very defensive. Now, it is safe to say that it was denial. Even more disconcerting, a day later I observed my 2 year old pickup my work Blackberry and mock his father by typing away. It was a sad epiphany of sorts. Since that day, I have made a conscious effort to disconnect more often, and really do. I only check my phone a few times a day and intentionally keep it out of reach.

    Whether you believe you are tethered to your phone or not, I encourage you to try it sometime. The next time you are out, say grocery shopping, leave your phone in the glove compartment and see if you unconsciously reach for it after you shift your attention to something else. If you are anything like me, you will realize that what’s on your phone isn’t so important at all.

    Outstanding post Bill, I could go on and on.

  8. FC says:

    You’re right, I had a smartphone and I was attached to it all the time. Getting rid of it was such a great experience. I became more aware of the present, I no longer have the need to play a game, surf the web or chat, I can contemplate the nature, the people passing by and the little things. Its way more fun not having a smartphone.
    Awesome blog, its my first time here.

  9. Bill Gerlach says:

    FC // Thanks for stopping by, sharing, and the kind words. I can’t tell you how uplifting it is to hear other people’s experiences with ditching their distractions and getting back in touch with simpler things. Here’s hoping it continues for you!

  10. Bill Gerlach says:

    J. Zombie // Good to see you here! Knowing you and your connection with technology, reading about your experiences sans the not-so-smartphone is awesome. I think what you experienced — that instinctual need to connect with the phone — is a really great example of what our “culture of connection” is fostering. We feel the need to connect. We feel the need to always be (pre-)occupied with something. We are losing our ability to experience simple contentment with just BEING in the MOMENT. I’m so glad to hear you’re putting some deliberate distance between you and the not-so-smartphone — especially for the family. Keep it up, brother!

  11. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hey, Dad // You did it! Thanks for all the support. Just like we were talking about the other day — reclaiming that lost sense of closeness with our neighbors and finding true and lasting value in a face-to-face conversation — it’s so important now more than ever. Those are important lessons that whether you realized it or not, I learned a lot about by watching you interact with all your friends and customers over the years.

  12. Jason says:

    I agree with your point about the amount of time people are on their mobile devices and I see people ignoring someone sitting in front of them for the person on the other end of the device.
    But, I would never have found your blog without an app on my IPad. I hope that I am bettering myself by reading it. And if someone was looking at me right now they could say that I am distracted as I connect to you with this comment.
    I think control and setting boundaries is what needs to be discussed more, so that more people are thinking about it when using their devices. The devices are not going away; with millions being sold each month, so setting up etiquette on using them is important. Once there are some general rules about what is appropriate then these concepts need to be shared.
    Parents have a great opportunity to role model for their children, showing that they can have the device and use it when appropriate. If children don’t learn that it can be controlled at home, they will have a hard time learning it out in the world. Although, I remember a several years ago at work going to meetings that were run by one old contractor. He would start every meeting by saying, “if you’re so important that your cell phone needs to be on, then you’re too important to be here.” I haven’t found the courage to start my meetings that way but I hope to someday.
    Thank You.

  13. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Jason // Thanks for stopping by (and your iPad that helped you get here!). Just before seeing your comment I scanned this Reuters article about the success of Apple’s new iPad in terms of sales ( According to the article, Apple has sold 55 million iPads since introducing them in 2010 — so you’re spot on with your point about them not going away any time soon. As one guy they interviewed for the article put it, “I just got hyped into it, I guess.”

    You bring up another important point regarding balance and boundaries. As individuals, we each make decisions (e.g., I’ve chosen not to buy an iPad while you have) and then need to ensure that those decisions continue to manifest in a responsible way. Setting boundaries and limits — and I love your point about parents modeling that for kids — are critical factors in maintaining that balance in our lives.

    That is a great quote! I bet you never heard a phone ring, did you? Thanks again for stopping by and sharing. I really appreciate it. Be well!

  14. Brice Furr says:

    Full disclosure, I’m writing this from my iPhone. I feel that you are painting this issue a little too drastically. I would like to point out that you might just not be aware of the communication going on between the families that you saw on their phones. For instance I play Words with friends, a very popular mobile game with my fiancé when we are sitting right next to each other. Yes from the outside you can scoff and think that we must be ignoring one another obsessed with our phones, but the truth is we are just interacting on a different level then you are familiar with. The same goes for social media, you see me checking my messages every two minutes, I see pictures that my old army buddy just posted of his newborn. I know I could check on those later and part of your point is the frequency of use, so I will also address that issue.

    You cited the drastic increase in market share for smart phones, if the speed of this change is true then the majority of the people you observed likely just obtained their devices. So give em a break, are you telling me you wouldn’t want to wear a new shirt you just bought or ride your new bike a little more? So let them get used to their new devices and eventually they will be less intrusive. Just like your shirt will get washed and put away with the others.

    Yes smart phones can make people seem rude at times, but they are not dangerous. There are studies that show
    Milk is addictive too, but it still makes my rasin bran mighty tasty. If you have a problem with someone you are directly interacting with using a device and ignoring you speak up, but if you don’t know them and aren’t involved with them at the moment don’t judge. Life is what you make it and frankly you don’t know how other people are living their lives. It’s gonna be ok.

  15. Bill Gerlach says:

    Brice // I appreciate you taking the time to respond and share your perspective on this. Again, I’m not coming out of the gates saying that smartphone technology is inherently bad. As I said, it’s about discovering the right boundaries and balance points. Maybe it’s novelty, maybe it’s not.

    Of course, I do not know anything more about the individual’s circumstances beyond what I could observe directly. I don’t think my conclusions — which were generalized based on my ongoing observations and not aimed at any one individual — constitute “scoff”ing. I am familiar with that level of communication (I use FB and Twitter to connect and share with friends), but I have made a conscious decision to not open up the anywhere-anytime access points that a smartphone might allow me. Perhaps I’m more of traditionalist, preferring face-to-face dialog over digital device-to-device options. To each their own.

    As an aside, a version of this post was featured at, where one commenter referenced several scientific studies demonstrating the negative effects of the electromagnetic waves emitted by mobile devices. (I have not explored them in depth.) More food for thought I suppose.

    Thanks again for lending to the conversation. I appreciate it.