Is Your Smartphone Making You Feel Not So Smart?

Senior woman with cell phone

Even a decade ago, we hardly could have imagined our lives in the smartphone era. Today, most everyone we know is only a call away ... from almost anywhere. The entire body of human knowledge is at our fingertips, if we are skilled search engine users. Apps keep track of our lives and save us a lot of time. For older adults, who are now adopting these technologies at a rapid pace, smartphones support safety, socialization and independence.

Some of us joke that we are addicted to our smartphones, and this might be pretty close to the truth! Our devices feel like a part of our brain; the first thing we do when we arrive somewhere is to charge them, and we anxiously touch our pocket 20 times a day to be sure they are in our presence. And did something really happen if we didn't take a selfie and post it on Facebook?

With all the benefits of smartphones, there are some downsides. Here are six things to consider as you evaluate your smartphone habits:

Your smartphone can be a pain in the neck … or hands. Orthopedists are seeing more patients with tendon and nerve damage caused by smartphone-related strain. They advise users to practice better body mechanics when talking on the phone, texting or surfing the web. Avoid "text neck" by holding your phone at varied angles rather than continually hunching over it. Lessen "BlackBerry thumb" by texting with alternate fingers. And take a break to stretch every now and again.

Your smartphone can ruin your sleep. Sleep experts tell us that more Americans are bringing their smartphones to bed, where they tempt us to stay up later to read just one more article … play just one more round of our favorite game … check our email one last time. And then, when we finally set the culprit aside, even if we power it off, we still may have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, because the light emitted by smartphones is the type that can make our sleep-wake cycle go haywire.

Your smartphone can raise your fall risk. Most people are well aware of the dangers of distracted driving, and put their phones away while behind the wheel — in part because state laws are making it expensive not to do so. But did you know that texting or talking on the phone while walking also raises the risk of injury? Distracted by conversation, we are more likely to step off a curb, trip over a patch of rough pavement, run into another pedestrian, or even walk out in front of a car. Have a seat or step aside until you've completed your conversation.

Your smartphone can lower the intensity of exercise. Listening to music while we work out can help us keep up the pace. Fitness apps help us track our progress. But the communication functions of our phone are another matter. We might stop or slow down repeatedly to check our email, post a selfie on Twitter, or answer a phone call. Explained Michael Rebold, Ph.D., of Hiram College, "If you're talking or texting on your cell phone while you're putting in your daily steps, your attention is divided by the two tasks." With this type of multitasking, we can go from working hard to hardly working!

Your smartphone might be a relationship wrecker. Have you heard the term "phubbing"? It was coined in 2012 to describe the habit of ignoring the person we're with to answer a phone call, check our email or go on social media — "phone snubbing." Baylor University researchers reported that phubbing can be bad for friendships, romantic relationships and family time. (They offer a quiz you can take to see if you are guilty of phubbing — and check out the illustration that might remind you of your own family's Thanksgiving table!)

Your smartphone can reduce your available brain power. Most of us know that a constant barrage of texts, calls and notifications can make it harder to concentrate. Beyond that, reports a study from the University of Texas at Austin, "Your cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach — even if it's off." Why? Explained assistant professor Adrian Ward, "Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person's ability to focus and perform tasks, because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone. The process of requiring yourself to not think about something uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It's a brain drain."

Once smitten with our smartphones, few of us are likely to give them up, but it's worth thinking about how we use them. Take a break now and again by turning your phone off, or turning off notifications. Turn it off when you go for a walk so you can truly relax and enjoy the moment — if you need it, you can turn it back on. As with any addiction, it can take some time to avoid the smartphone jitters — "Where is it? What if someone’s trying to call? What if I’m missing an important news story?" But you may quickly find that taking a break restores a healthier balance between online life and real life.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.