September 21st 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Federal Government should abolish Renewable Energy Certificates

ENERGY BP annual Review shows consumption, production up

CANBERRA OBSERVED NSW Labor caught in Panda's paws doing 'whatever it takes'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Religious discrimination bill: A litany of questions

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris' brinkmanship shakes up Britain, EU

WATER POLICY Angry farmers protest over Murray-Darling Basin Plan ... again

TECHNOLOGY Are we the dumbest devices in the room?

HISTORY AND POLITICS Lord Acton, nationalism and multiculturalism, Part 2

LITERATURE D.H. Lawrence: The Modernist in exile

MUSIC Dialectical transcendence

CINEMA The Farewell: Elegant and bittersweet

BOOK REVIEW Owning up to market imperfections

BOOK REVIEW Heroism and faith under tyranny

BOOK REVIEW The love that comes after love is gone


EDITORIAL Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference

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Are we the dumbest devices in the room?

by Mark Williams

News Weekly, September 21, 2019

Do you remember what life was like before the release of the first iPhone in 2007? Did you know that an estimated 5 billion people now use a mobile device? That means over 66 per cent of the world’s population is now connected. That sort of global penetration of a new technology is unprecedented in history.

The concerning aspect is that over 60 per cent of adult users say they are addicted to their smartphones. Even worse, 90 per cent of college students experience “phantom buzz syndrome”. This is a feeling on their leg that their phone is vibrating even though it is not. It is an indication of addiction.

It is actually not that surprising that so many people are now addicted to their smartphones – they are designed to achieve exactly that. It is what the tech companies want. In fact, it’s their business model: return to service.

The mobile phones, tablets and all the apps you run on them are designed to be both user friendly and addictive. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t live without it”? Of course, they can live without it, but it is designed to make them feel like they can’t.

You are probably now thinking, “Sure, but this new tech is making our lives better so it doesn’t really matter, does it?” But does it? Are those people sitting at a café or on the beach looking at their devices really better off than the ones chatting to their friends or watching their kids play? I don’t think so.

In truth, simply being “on” a device increases our stress levels. Research shows that even having a device close to us subconsciously attracts our attention. Is increased stress and reduced ability to attune to the real world really better?

Use it or lose it

Even more concerning, these smartphones are making us less intelligent! Our brains constantly change and adapt. It is called neuroplasticity. Your brain today is ever so slightly different to the brain you had yesterday. Some connections have been made stronger and unused connections have been weakened. This happens constantly, based on what we are doing both mentally and physically. It is how we learn.

On the flip side, it is also how we forget. Ever heard the phrase, “use it or lose it”? It is important for the brain as well as our bodies. The problem is that smartphones are now doing a lot of things we used to do for ourselves. When was the last time you navigated to a new location without using your smartphone, or calculated something in your head, or remembered a meeting without your online calendar, or just sat and contemplated life. If you don’t use it, you will lose it!

Here is an example. London taxi drivers are required to memorise the road map of London and the best way to get from A to B. It’s called “doing the know­ledge”. In 2000, tests showed that an area of the brain involved in memory of places and locations (the parahippocampus) is larger in London taxi drivers. This study showed that using this particular skill changed their brains.

Fast-forward to today and there’s a problem. We no longer have to navigate anywhere. We use map apps on our smartphones. These tell us when to turn right or left and when we have arrived. This area of our brain is being used much less and is therefore diminishing.

Time to get social

Another concern is the social areas of our brain. We are social animals. We have evolved to seek out and be supported by our friends and relatives. In the days when the world was much more dangerous this was vital. We had to worry about warring tribes and hungry animals. Being part of a large group was essential for survival.

Our brains still require that contact and connection. But our addiction to devices means we are sitting in groups but no longer interacting. Social media means we have thousands of virtual “friends” and hardly any real ones! We are no longer using many of these important social areas of our brains. As with all other underused areas, neuroplasticity means these faculties are steadily diminished.

Did you know that the more friends someone has online the fewer friends they are likely to have in real life? There is startling data coming out of the United States and Europe showing a sharp increase in depression and suicide among children and teenagers. This is at a time when we are safer, healthier, better educated and wealthier than any time in history. Teens and kids are going out less, drinking less alcohol and are less likely to take drugs. But they are more stressed, more depressed and more suicidal.

Now consider the many other things that your smartphone is doing for you. Where will this end? A small brain that is able to search Google and respond to pings from a “smart” device but not able to think, to remember, to show empathy or socialise with friends.

Until now, we have seized upon the undoubted benefits of technological advances with unquestioning enthusiasm. We can now see that a sad and lonely future awaits many. Working out better ways to integrate our organic brains with technology (and its vested commercial interests) will be a future battleground for hearts and minds.

If you are concerned about smartphone and device use, please go to for some fact sheets and useful tips.
Professor Mark Williams is a neuroscientist at the Perception in Action Research Centre in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University.

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