The worrying effect your phone is having on your brain – and three ways to break the habit

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Finding it hard to concentrate? It could be down to your smartphone. Julia Llewellyn Smith discovers how to retrain your brain - and your habits…

Curled up on the sofa, officially watching a documentary, my right hand is fiddling incessantly with my smartphone.

I like the presenter’s top, so I google “white lacy T-shirt with collar”, but on the way to find it I’m distracted by a link about a tap-dancing whippet.

I decide to check Facebook but in the middle of composing a witty reply to the status update of a woman I’ve never met but who for some reason counts as one of my “friends”, I’m distracted by my email pinging.

What was the presenter saying about ancient Greece? I turn to ask my husband but he’s busy on WhatsApp.

My children are nearly as bad. Mercifully, phones are banned at my 13-year-old’s school but when she’s with her friends they no longer chat, instead they sit in a circle scrolling silently.

My 10-year-old daughter doesn’t have a phone, but grabs mine at every opportunity to message friends and gape at YouTube videos.

And when we try to enjoy a DVD together, they find it impossible to concentrate, being used to watching three-minute clips online.

We’re not alone. A recent survey showed the average person now spends five hours a day on digital devices.

The effects of constant phone time

Worryingly, constant phone checking is rewiring the way we think. Just as with our bodies, the more we exercise certains areas of our brain, the more these grow stronger, whilst those we neglect grow weaker until the die off.

“Every time a taxi driver works out how to reach a destination, their brain is exercised. With time, the paths in the brain associated with spatial awareness and memory grow thicker as practice makes them better and better,” explains Dr Megan Reitz, co-author of Mind Time: How 10 Mindful Minutes Can Enhance Your Work, Health & Happiness.

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“In the same way, when we look at Facebook or check our emails - often breaking from activities or conversations to grab our phones - we create new habits that are ingrained further, leaving us less able to focus.”

It turns out that my habit of googling everything rather than relying on memory or trying to figure out the answer myself is also damaging my problem-solving abilities, as the brain decides those areas are so underused they’re unnecessary.

Experts also warn that “multitasking” – watching a soap, while trying to book a holiday, while chatting on Twitter – stops our brains from forging broad neural pathways that give us our capacity for deep thought and creativity.

“We’re doing so many things that all we’re doing is processing on a surface level,” says Frances Booth, author of The Distraction Trap: How to Focus in a Digital World. “If there’s split focus, then memories aren’t encoded – nothing goes in to your long-term memory. This has serious consequences for learning.”

Phone effects on children

If adults are at risk, things are even worse for children, whose brains are still developing.

Studies have shown that children who are heavy social media users exhibit “poor emotional regulation skills” because they’ve forgotten how to interact with people face-to-face.

And a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England described how children as young as 10 were measuring their self-worth through apps such as Snapchat, often becoming clinically depressed if their posts didn’t attract enough “likes”, and anxious they’d lose friends if they didn’t respond immediately to updates.

Psychologist Linda Blair, author of The Key to Calm, insists smartphones aren’t necessarily bad. “The trick is to see our phone as an incredibly useful tool, but only a tool. To be its master, not its slave.”

So what can be done to reverse the effects of smartphone oveload? Read on…

3 Simple Ways to Retrain Your Brain

1. Go offline for 30 minutes a day

Or longer, if possible. Decide on a period every day when you’re offline. The point is to be in control of your phone, rather than have it control you.

2. Turn off ‘pings’

Choose set times to look at messages and, whenever possible, turn off the “pings” on your phone that alert you to their arrival, each time activating the feel-good chemical dopamine in your brain – which is also addictive.

3. Learn how to learn again

You need to expend effort to learn and that doesn’t happen when you skim through something online. Write it down, say it aloud or explain it to a friend. It’s only when you repeat it that the information becomes encoded deeply enough for you to retain it.