Is your smartphone making you lazier, smarter or more polite?

It’s hard to go anywhere without our mobile phone, so what happens when two students forgo their phones for an entire day? Chrystal Chan investigates and hears from a few experts

My friends and I are lounging by the pool in Bali. On vacation, none of us are relaxing. One is talking to her boyfriend on FaceTime. Another is on Google Maps, searching for the location of dinner tonight. I’m frowning at my screen, trying to edit my photos so they’ll look good on Instagram.

This is the era we live in, where nary a day goes by without our mobile phones – even when we are on holiday – and where social media channels like Instagram and Facebook are tools for us to connect to the world and all our 800 friends.

Always “there”
“People these days can’t do without their smartphone because it offers great convenience in serving many of our needs,” says Prof Richard Ling, a media technology expert at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information.

“Through it, we expect others to be ‘there’. One of the reasons I make sure I have my phone with me is in case someone wants to contact me.”

He added that there is also habitual use, where we find ourselves automatically reaching for our phones as we have repeated this process so many times.

These days, mobile phone ownership brings with it problems our smartphone-less ancestors never had to face, such as a culture of immediacy. People today want everything and they want it at once.

Unlike in the days of “snail mail”, a reply is generally expected within the hour, whether by text message or via a voice call. This puts plenty of stress on us, be it self-imposed or from peer pressure.

“Your friends should be able to understand that you may be busy with something and can’t text back immediately. What I like about instant messaging is that it allows multi-tasking, so you can respond a little later while doing something else,” says Asst Prof Michael Patterson, who does research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Fiend or friend?
There have been various organised attempts to encourage people not to use their phones during meals, which can be viewed as rude and “anti-social”. As a reminder to prize face-to-face interaction over our phones, a group of final-year communication students carried out a project called Put It On Friend Mode.

“The overdependence on and excessive use of mobile phones is a problem we all feel strongly about,” says Chan Jing Hao.

“But it wasn’t until we spoke to our peers that we discovered how widespread the problem is. We wanted to raise awareness of this ‘anti-social’ behaviour and correct it through this campaign.”

On the other hand, experts believe the transition from calling to texting has made people more polite and less disruptive.

“When you call someone, everyone else around you knows you’re doing it. Now you can sit quietly and text, and not disturb others,” explains Prof Ling.

However, as phones get “smarter”, there is the worry we’ll eventually lose the ability to do things now easily done by technology. One extreme example is penmanship becoming a forgotten ability since typing is so much simpler and more efficient. And with all the numbers we need conveniently stored in our Contacts list, we don’t give our brains a workout remembering phone numbers anymore.

“A recent study showed that when we believe something will be saved on our computer or phone, we’re less likely to make the effort to remember it,” says Asst Prof Patterson.

But this is not all bad. “When cars started becoming popular, people were worried they would eventually lose the skills needed to saddle a horse,” says Prof Ling. “That’s true, but when was the last time you had to rely on a horse?”

So our skill sets are essentially changing, says Prof Ling. Humans aren’t becoming less intelligent, but simply doing things in different ways. In fact, believe it or not, smartphones can make us smarter in increasing our ability to multi-task.

Brain booster
A study conducted by Asst Prof Patterson and graduate student Adam Oei found that participants who played more complex games like Cut the Rope for as little as an hour a day for a month could switch between tasks 33% faster. They were also 60% better at blocking out distractions and staying focused on tasks.

It’s not just games that make us more effective. The apps on our phones help us do everything under the sun, from tracking the number of steps we take to telling us how much we’ve spent this month. It’s even possible to learn a foreign language on the go.

One thing’s for sure, our phones will continue to pervade our consciousness in various ways. So use it wisely.

A day without my smartphone

“The first thing I do every morning is check WhatsApp and my Instagram and Facebook feeds.

During this one-day challenge, I instinctively reached for my phone a few times to discover it wasn’t there, and found myself thinking about all the text messages I could be missing.

The withdrawal symptoms escalated during lunch when I was alone with no one to talk to over the meal. This would've been fine if I had my phone to turn to. This time, I decided to just observe what was going on around me.

Before the challenge, I had set a time and place to meet a friend for dinner. After waiting for 10 minutes, he still didn’t appear. I later found out he’d tried to call me to tell me he would be late.

After dinner, I walked faster than usual to get back to my hall room at NTU. The first thing I did was launch myself onto my desk and seize my phone. It felt like I was reunited with a part of myself. I’m glad this challenge wasn’t done on a day where I had to travel further, because I doubt I’d be able to survive without my music, Google Maps and just knowing I’m connected to the world.” – Isaac Lim, Sociology

“I have all the social media channels like Instagram and Facebook, but I’m not obsessed with updating them. My friends call me a ‘lazy texter’ as I don’t reply messages promptly. Perhaps that was why I felt I could survive without my phone.

During class, I discovered the first inconvenience. I couldn’t take down important points using the Notes app on my phone. Nor could I take photos of the lesson, and I had to fall back on pen and paper.

After class, I starting feeling a little lost without my phone as I had to attend a project meeting and was worried I might not know about a change in the meeting place or time.

Aside from the occasional nagging feeling that I might be missing calls and texts, I coped well. In fact, I found myself a lot more focused during tutorials. But I could no longer use my phone as a security blanket. For example, when I make accidental eye contact with strangers, I usually take out my phone and look distracted. This time, I could only look away awkwardly.

I think the best part of this mobile-free day was how liberated I felt, as there was less pressure to reply text messages immediately. I am going to try to be less attached to my phone as I feel it’s bad to be a slave to technology and miss out on what’s happening around me.” – Sabrina Ng, Economics

Photos: Amin Shah and Lester Kok