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Are Smartphones Making Us Stupid?

Eighty-one percent of Americans own a smartphone, according to a recent survey. Among young people the percentage is even higher: 96 percent. We carry our phones everywhere and are rarely untethered from them. We scroll through social media, get directions, watch movies, and look up just about anything on our little screens. Some people say this constant connectivity and easy access to dizzying amounts of information isn’t without drawbacks. Two technology experts face off on the effect these ubiquitous devices are having on our brains.

The idea that smartphones are making us stupid might, at first, sound a little absurd. After all, that iPhone 11 or Samsung Galaxy S20 in your pocket is actually an incredibly sophisticated networked computer and camera with the power to immediately connect with anyone around the world. You could write a novel, edit a movie, or solve a complex math problem on this magical device.

But, of course, you aren’t writing novels, editing movies, or solving complex math problems with your smartphone. Instead, you’re using your incredibly sophisticated pocket computer to Tweet the details of what you just ate, watch videos on TikTok, and post your disappearing Snapchat photos from last night’s school dance. Then there are all those WhatsApp instant messages you so need to send each hour to your girlfriend or boyfriend and all those selfies that you—as a dedicated member of the Selfie Generation—post daily on Instagram.

Smartphones make us more and more wrapped up in ourselves.

So rather than transforming us into Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, or Toni Morrison, our smartphones are actually making us more wrapped up in ourselves. In the end, all we are left with is more and more intimacy with our own lives and less and less knowledge of the wider world around us.

And that, I’m afraid, is why smartphones are making us stupid.

You see, technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, independent of the world; technology is only as good as how we use it. Smartphones could, of course, make us smarter if we use them smartly. But most of us don’t, because we are locked in the minutiae of our own lives. Our culture lends itself to instant gratification, the trivialization of serious subjects, and, above all, what psychologists call “narcissism”—unhealthily excessive interest in oneself. Smartphones are both a cause and a consequence of our selfie-obsessed culture. Unfortunately, they are, indeed, making us dumber and dumber.


Author, The Internet Is Not the Answer

Thirty years ago, before the internet was known to everyone, if someone had advertised a “universal answers machine” that fits in your pocket, it would have been hailed as a miracle. If that machine also let you navigate any city or town, keep up with the news, read books, discover music, and stay in touch with friends, it would have been hailed as ushering in a new age of intelligence.

Now, of course, we take all that—and more—for granted. But we should be aware of this enormous gift, even as we deal with all the problems and dangers it poses. The fact that we can ask a question and get an answer, wherever we are, means that our discussions can get past disputes over facts so that we can talk about the real issue: What do we make of those facts?

Come across an interesting thought? You can pursue it with a click. And if that click leads you to a web of posts and videos, you can just tap a finger to explore it as far and wide as you’d like. Our mobile phones are gliders
on the web that show us that the world is far more interesting than we ever guessed.

Never in history have we had so much access to information, ideas, and creativity.

Never in history have we had so much access to ideas, information, and creativity. Plus, we now carry our friends around in our pockets. We use social networking to share the links and ideas that matter to us. When we read the articles and watch the videos our friends post, we learn more about the world. When we share out the links we’ve discovered, the entire world gets a little bit informed. When we reach out to friends and then more widely to try out an idea or to ask an honest question about something we just read, the world gets a little smarter too.

No new technology is perfect, and smartphones can pose problems if we don’t learn to be skeptical about believing things simply because everyone in our network believes them. But fundamentally smartphones give us more information, more access to ideas, and more opportunities for discussions and growth. That sounds like a recipe for smartness.


Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

Smartphones By the Numbers

3.5 billion

NUMBER of smartphone users worldwide. That’s up from 2.5 billion in 2016.

Source: Statista


PERCENTAGE of the world population that is projected to access the internet solely by their smartphones by 2025.

Source: World Advertising Research Center


AVERAGE COST of a smartphone worldwide.

Source: Statista

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