What if our smartphones are making us stupid?
We are so used to thinking of technology as an unmitigated good, not to mention a key driver of productivity growth, that any potential deleterious effects have been largely ignored.
No one can deny the ways in which technology has enhanced our lives and facilitated the conduct of business. But it has created a nation of addicts who check their smartphones dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day, often unconsciously.
And this addiction, which interferes with concentration and distracts us from the business at hand, can’t help but sap worker productivity, even if economists haven’t quantified the effect just yet.
Just think about it for a moment. If you spend eight hours a day at the office, and devote an hour to non-work-related activities — responding to emails from friends, posting on Facebook and Instagram, tweeting the latest outrage to your Twitter followers — your output for a day’s work will be lower than it was without the distractions and interruptions. (You may think you can multi-task and text-while-you-talk, but the brain is not set up that way.)
After all, you devoted only seven hours to your actual work even though you clocked in for eight. Because productivity is a measure of output per hour worked, reduced output for the same number of hours worked translates to lower productivity.
To date, there has been little empirical work by economists on the productivity-damaging effects of smartphone addiction. But researchers in the relatively new field of neuroeconomics, an amalgam of neuroscience, psychology and economics, have taken the bait.
In a study titled “Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity,” researchers Éilish Duke of the University of London and Christian Montag of Germany’s Ulm University found a “moderate relationship between smartphone addiction and a self-reported decrease in productivity due to spending time on the smartphone during work, as well as with the number of work hours lost to smartphone use.”
Smartphone addiction had a “negative impact” on non-work related activities as well, according to the study. (Maybe that greasy kitchen stove top never got cleaned?)
The tech titans knew they were creating a monster, luring us with ever-more-powerful mobile devices, featuring bigger screens and better cameras; smartwatches; and smart speakers for our homes.
Neuroscientists were quick to identify a dopamine response — dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that contributes to feelings of pleasure — from the feedback we receive, prodding us to check our phones and social media more often. Recent studies have shown that the mere presence of a cellphone in the room in which one is working can interfere with concentration.
Eilish and Montag suggest that much of the phone-checking behavior may be “automatic and unconscious,” which means that participants in their study, who admitted spending more time on their phones than they thought was “optimal,” underestimated the frequency of their cellphone interactions.
Other research has found that the symptoms of smartphone addiction align with classic addiction symptoms: loss of control, withdrawal symptoms, and negative effects on our social and work lives.
When you consider that smartphones make it possible to stay connected 24/7 to social media — another addiction — you can begin to grasp just how debilitating their effect can be.
I’m not sure why economists have been reluctant to examine the negative effects of smartphones on productivity. It may have to do with the challenges of calculating output per hour worked in a largely services economy. (Private services industries account for about 70% of gross domestic product.)
In its monthly report on productivity and costs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses revenue, or nominal sales, as a proxy for output. That revenue is adjusted for changes in price.
Labor input is derived from total hours worked, which businesses report to the BLS each month. Output divided by input equals productivity.
It’s relatively easy to calculate the number of widgets a manufacturer produces — its output. It’s not so easy when it comes to services industries, where quality, not quantity, is more likely to suffer initially from employees distracted by cellphones. Until a decline in the quality of services affects a company’s bottom line, it will not manifest itself as a decline in output and hence, productivity.
Why does this matter? Productivity is a key element in determining how fast an economy can grow. The other input is labor-force growth. Both factors have been slowing in recent years, which is why the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office estimate potential real GDP at 1.8% or 1.9%.
Anything that impedes productivity growth, which has already downshifted to an average of 1.4% since 2004 from the post-World War II average of 2.2%, affects long-term growth and real wages.
The public is slowly catching on to the power that smartphones wield over us. Technology reporters are sharing the steps they took to cure cellphone addiction. Others are turning to one of the new, minimalist phones as a way to beat the habit.
Surely a 12-step program — Smartphone Addicts Anonymous — can’t be far behind.