Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking

by Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos

Summary.
In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity. Before completing these tasks, the researchers asked participants to either: place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks); keep them in their pockets or bags; or leave them in another room. The results were striking: the closer the phone to the participant, the worse she fared on the task. The mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names or a crying baby — something that automatically exerts a gravitational pull on our attention. Resisting that pull takes a cognitive toll.

“Put your phone away” has become a commonplace phrase that is just as often dismissed. Despite wanting to be in the moment, we often do everything within our power to the contrary. We take out our phones to take pictures in the middle of festive family meals, and send text messages or update our social media profiles in the middle of a date or while watching a movie. At the same time, we are often interrupted passively by notifications of emails or phone calls. Clearly, interacting with our smartphones affects our experiences. But can our smartphones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them — when they are simply nearby?

In recent research, we investigated whether merely having one’s own smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity. In one task, participants simultaneously completed math problems and memorized random letters. This tests how well they can keep track of task-relevant information while engaging in a complex cognitive task. In the second task, participants saw a set of images that formed an incomplete pattern, and chose the image that best completed the pattern. This task measures “fluid intelligence,” or people’s ability to reason and solve novel problems. Performance on both of these tasks is affected by individuals’ available mental resources.

Our intervention was simple: before completing these tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.

The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.

This cognitive capacity is critical for helping us learn, reason, and develop creative ideas. In this way, even a small effect on cognitive capacity can have a big impact, considering the billions of smartphone owners who have their devices present at countless moments of their lives. This means that in these moments, the mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.

Why are smartphones so distracting, even when they’re not buzzing or chirping at us? The costs of smartphones are inextricably linked to their benefits. The immense value smartphones provide, as personal hubs connecting us to each other and to virtually all of the world’s collective knowledge, necessarily positions them as important and relevant to myriad aspects of our everyday lives. Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry.

Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.

Are you affected? Most likely. Consider the most recent meeting or lecture you attended: did anyone have their smartphone out on the table? Think about the last time you went to the movies, or went out with friends, read a book, or played a game: was your smartphone close by? In all of these cases, merely having your smartphone present may have impaired your cognitive functioning.

Our data also show that the negative impact of smartphone presence is most pronounced for individuals who rank high on a measure capturing the strength of their connection to their phones — that is, those who strongly agree with statements such as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” and “It would be painful for me to give up my cell phone for a day.” In a world where people continue to increasingly rely on their phones, it is only logical to expect this effect to become stronger and more universal.

We are clearly not the first to take note of the potential costs of smartphones. Think about the number of fatalities associated with driving while talking on the phone or texting, or of texting while walking. Even hearing your phone ring while you’re busy doing something else can boost your anxiety. Knowing we have missed a text message or call leads our minds to wander, which can impair performance on tasks that require sustained attention and undermine our enjoyment. Beyond these cognitive and health-related consequences, smartphones may impair our social functioning: having your smartphone out can distract you during social experiences and make them less enjoyable.

With all these costs in mind, however, we must consider the immense value that smartphones provide. In the course of a day, you may use your smartphone to get in touch with friends, family, and coworkers; order products online; check the weather; trade stocks; read HBR; navigate your way to a new address, and more. Evidently, smartphones increase our efficiency, allowing us to save time and money, connect with others, become more productive, and remain entertained.

So how do we resolve this tension between the costs and benefits of our smartphones?

Smartphones have distinct uses. There are situations in which our smartphones provide a key value, such as when they help us get in touch with someone we’re trying to meet, or when we use them to search for information that can help us make better decisions. Those are great moments to have our phones nearby. But, rather than smartphones taking over our lives, we should take back the reins: when our smartphones aren’t directly necessary, and when being fully cognitively available is important, setting aside a period of time to put them away — in another room — can be quite valuable.

With these findings in mind, students, employees, and CEOs alike may wish to maximize their productivity by defining windows of time during which they plan to be separated from their phones, allowing them to accomplish tasks requiring deeper thought. Moreover, asking employees not to use their phones during meetings may not be enough. Our work suggests that having meetings without phones present can be more effective, boosting focus, function, and the ability to come up with creative solutions. More broadly, we can all become more engaged and cognitively adept in our everyday lives simply by putting our smartphones (far) away.

From the Harvard Business Review

Worries about sex, drugs & technology

From Conscious Creative Courageous Living with Children, Susan Laing’s resources for understanding creativelivingwithchildren.com

With the media continually reporting stories on the worrying behaviours of some Tweens and Teens today, many parents become anxious about their own children’s possible use of drugs, early sexual intercourse and the effects of the new technologies and all these allow access to. While the consequences for these children and teens at high risk are great, and our concern for them remains, their numbers are actually smaller than is usually assumed. The majority of young people, perhaps even 85 %, do not regularly partake in unhealthy behaviours related to these risks.

Parents need to do a number of things: assess the risks for their own children, and act to alleviate those risks; educate their children well on all the issues involved, for example on sex education, cyber safety, sensible and safe use of technology, and the effects of drugs on the body; get help for those at high risk; then, having done what you can, work together with your children with trust in helping them to keep themselves safe and healthy, while still allowing them to take on new responsibilities, experiences and adventures.

Click this link to read 3 articles available on sex, drugs and technology for pre-teens and teenagers.

Creating a meaningful Easter

For those Christians with religious inclinations Easter will already be a significant time, but, for many, Easter has become a secular celebration and, in some countries, an opportunity to get away for a few days. Yet it also offers an opportunity to build a meaningful celebration around the universal values it contains.

Finding the universal human values to celebrate in the Easter traditions.

The original significance of the Easter story and many of the Easter symbols has been lost in the commercialization of Easter. Easter in the broadest, most universal sense, is the celebration of new life, of resurrection, of the archetypal loving deed done on behalf of others. It is about seeking for the best part of ourselves, our spirit. For children ideally it is about the joy of Easter Sunday, of the risen Christ in the Easter event, not the darkness of the crucifixion of Easter Friday; for sensitive young children can understand simple death, and burial, but not torment, torture and agony.

The date of each Easter is set at the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox, a powerful time for the forces of growth in the earth in the northern hemisphere. Many of the symbols of Easter – in the egg, the chicken and the hare, (which has transformed into the rabbit)— are ancient symbols of spring, of the coming of new life after the hard winter. These are northern hemisphere traditions.

In the southern hemisphere, it is of course autumn at Easter, a very different time when the hens may even stop laying eggs! Nevertheless, in the temperate zones in the south, we can also observe a renewal of life in nature. For with the first autumn rains, the earth really sings, the plants and the insect world come alive again. The plants and the microbial activity in the soil, which have withdrawn from the scorching heat of summer, open up, to grow in the gentler autumn sun again before the cold of winter takes hold; the grasses begin to shoot; the autumn wheat is planted, along with the bulbs and seedlings which will flower later in the southern spring.

In the tropics, the rhythms are different again. Perhaps April at Easter time creates a breathing space between the tropical cyclones and storms in the south and those in the north. We need to observe what is happening with nature in each place. What is flowering or fruiting? What are the clouds, the rain and the winds doing? What is changing? Can we find the symbols of Easter, the cross, the egg form, in the flowers, fruits and seeds or in signs of new life and of resurrection here too?

Creating meaningful Easter celebrations

Much can be done to make a meaningful beautiful Easter within the sacred religious traditions of course. But we can also bring more meaning to what has become secular, the eggs, the chicks, rabbits, Easter hunt and hot cross buns. You may want to research the origins of these symbols on the web for ideas—Wikipedia articles have more depth, than a general search. You can work with the concepts of new life, service to others, and the seeking in the Easter egg hunt.

Traditions like finding a hill to watch the sun go down on Easter Friday in a quiet contemplative mood, and come up on Easter Sunday, with the experience of the renewal of life in all the joy of increasing light and life and bird song, can provide special moments in the festival. Planting something for the future in the earth on Easter Friday can be a wonderful thing to do with children— bulbs for later flowering, trees for the good of the earth, flowering plants for the native birds to feed in. Such activities can bring a continuity of awareness from Easter to Easter as the children watch their gifts to the earth grow. In such activities children can experience the joy of the traditional Easter event, of renewal, of unconditional love, of the re-enlivening of the earth and humanity. Easter can be a festival of life and hope in a world which can be depressing at times as we listen daily to stories of violence, poverty, war and environmental degradation.

Can the love of the beautiful form of the egg, with its endless possibilities of decoration, display and discovery, bring a different sort of joy and richer memories than just being given cheap eggs from the supermarket (often of poor quality chocolate at that). Home-made, blown decorated eggs can be hung from a branch to make an Easter Tree or placed in a bowl of freshly sprouted wheat. Eggs, and nests for little eggs, can be made from healthier ‘treats’ like roasted nuts and seeds, shredded coconut and dried fruit mixed with melted carob or chocolate. You could even make jellied rabbits in colourful salad gardens. You can find food from your multicultural traditions, like we had in our family in our own Nonna’s Pizza Chiena, sometimes called Italian Easter pie, a bread made with cheese and salted meats at its centre.

Family traditions can be made in your own Easter egg hunt. We have an Easter story in my family of when my mother was a small child in the early 1920s. Her family got together with another family to hide eggs in the garden for everyone, adults included. One year my grandfather’s egg was hidden at the top of a pine tree. When everyone had found their eggs but him, they stood around the tree looking up until he scaled the tree to find his egg. He was in fact a church minister, with considerable athletic ability and a very good sense of humour. In my own family here, we would hide a nest of eggs for each person in the garden late at night, until one night a fox made off with one of the nests before we had our hunt. Such stories become part of our family traditions, memories of which can sustain us through our lives.

The delight in the seeking of eggs in the garden in an Easter egg hunt, is best if the motivation is as much in the seeking, like the enthusiasm for the living of life, seeking for meaning, for inner riches—rather than just in the finding and accumulation of prizes. A collection basket, where all the found eggs are placed for sharing out more equally later, makes it less competitive.

The possibilities are endless for you to create your own Easter festival, into which you can bring your values, love and appreciation— making it meaningful and relevant for your own family. Ideally here we make our primary motivation to bring meaning and human values to what we do, not just adding more ‘decorations’ or ‘activities’ to our festival. For more ideas on creating meaningful family festivals in general see the photo link below.

With thanks to Creative Living with Children, Susan Laing’s resources for understanding children.  creativelivingwithchildren.com

Click for the full article including links to Easter activities

Child Safety Handbook

A new edition of the Child Safety Handbook is now available online with updated safety content.

We urge all parents and carers to download this latest edition and discuss the safety content with your children.

Read the Child Safety Handbook here

Waldorf education and social justice

Created by Neil Boland 04/09/2020.

Neil Boland would like to focus on Waldorf education as an education for social justice, to explore how Rudolf Steiner phrased this a century ago and then consider how it can be approached in a twenty-first century context. What the author wants to encourage here is a wider conversation, wider debate on social justice within Waldorf education, what it might mean, what is (not) working, how the ideal can be strengthened and how we can engage more widely with social justice partners to facilitate this.

Social justice has multiple meanings, but for me it is that all members of society are acknowledged as of equal merit, value and importance. In addition, no group or groups within society should be privileged to the detriment of others, be that based on gender, class, wealth, resource ownership, culture, belief or non-belief, ethnicity, sexual or gender orientation, education, physical or mental abilities, epistemological viewpoint or other identifying characteristics.

Waldorf education has its roots in the movement for social renewal envisioned by Rudolf Steiner, the three-fold social order. This movement was created at a time of great social upheaval and need after the First World War and the Russian Revolution; the world is perhaps at another moment of great social need. Waldorf education is the child of this movement which has found greatest success and acceptance in the intervening 100 years. There are praiseworthy instances of Waldorf schools working strongly with notions of social inclusion and social justice. Individual teachers work hard and achieve similarly praiseworthy results. Of the three independent areas of the movement for social renewal which Steiner identifies, I am going to be taking two, the legal sphere and the cultural sphere.

Legal and cultural sphere
In the legal sphere, equality reigns. The current English translation of Towards Social Renewal puts it like this: “In the political and legal sphere, each individual has an equal voice simply through being a human being” (1). I find it a call to action as many people in our societies so manifestly do not have an equal voice.

In what Steiner calls the cultural sphere, we are free, all different, all individual. I would like to take freedom in the same sense as Bloom when he points out, “By freedom, Steiner meant it in the spiritual sense rather than political. Each person must be left free to form her or his identity” (2).

Now I presume that you agree with these two ideas – that all people should have equal voice simply by being human beings and that each person should be left free to create their own identity. However, as Steiner also says in Towards Social Renewal, “People do not always judge their own motives and impulses correctly” (1), and therein lies the rub.

We live in a world in which social justice is not realised. Racial discrimination and attacks, religious intolerance, increasing inequality, the plight of refugees and immigrants, oppression of minorities are all in the news. We read of fear, oppression, intolerance and suspicion around the world. Sexism and patriarchy are not new to any of our societies, neither is the affluent minority being able to wield power over the less well-off majority. Many of us grew up in societies which were to a greater or lesser extent homophobic, white-dominated and which saw gender as a binary concept. Many of us grew up in societies in which the indigenous inhabitants of the lands we live in were often marginalised, forgotten and not considered part of current debates.

Education cuts both ways
What we can lose sight of is how this influences what we think, feel and do. It is difficult to have lived through the past and not have been influenced by systemic racism, sexism etc. These form unconscious biases which we then can unwittingly carry into our work and so perpetuate. Education cuts both ways: it can empower and liberate; it can work just as easily to replicate the inequalities and injustices of our societies. We may well be people of goodwill, wanting to do good in the world, but have we identified things which might be holding us back?

What or who do those biases involve? They involve difference, dealing with the Other, with people who do not come from dominant groups in societies (some of these change according to society, some seem to remain constant). They can include being of non-dominant gender (aka female), different colour skin, different religions, different world views and historical perspectives, different sexual identities, different expressions of gender, speakers of other languages, those who dress differently, the handicapped, the poor, refugees, the homeless. The list goes on. If Steiner’s ideal was that everyone has an equal voice by virtue of being human, how well is that expressed in the society you live in? What do students learn about these groups within their Waldorf education? Is what students learn nuanced and rich in complexity?

In order for people to have equal voice, it is necessary as teachers to identify ways in which we unconsciously and unintentionally discriminate and, unwittingly and unwillingly, are ourselves biased (3), so we can experience “what it means to unlearn certain regressive behaviours, ideas, habits, and values that the dominant culture imposes on [us] as second nature” (4). Without this first step, worthy actions we undertake in the direction of social justice can only have limited success.

Social renewal
The roots of social justice in Waldorf education are long and deep. The education was established in order to renew society. It is possible that this impulse has to some extent been eclipsed by the myriad other concerns and challenges schools and early childhood settings face.

I would like to suggest that this initial aim be revisited in light of two short passages by Steiner. The first comes from Towards social renewal again: “Social structures continually give rise to anti-social forces. This has to be overcome again and again” (1). A similar quotation comes from The Fall of the Spirits of Darkness which is both stimulating and sobering:

“We … must seek ever-new ways, look for new forms over and over again … however good the right may be that you want to bring to realisation – it will turn into a wrong in the course of time.” (5)

To what extend does this apply to accepted Waldorf forms? There is a documented tendency within Waldorf education to accept what has gone before as how it is, as what is accepted, and often as how it should be. Are there anti-social forces which can be discerned within Waldorf education today and which need to be reviewed? Is there anything within Waldorf education which, by not remaining contemporaneous, not staying current, through not finding new forms again and again, it can be argued, has turned into “a wrong”?

A final quote from Steiner draws attention to the notion of inclusivity. “All those who think about the proletariat [Steiner’s term] rather than with it have only the vaguest notions … notions which … can have a harmful effect” (5). If we expand what Steiner says here about the working class to any group, when wishing to act for social justice, we have to work with groups, not do things for them or teach about them. This challenges the notion of the well-meaning, liberal teacher as ‘do-gooder,’ wanting to help the disenfranchised. How do you work with or think with marginalised groups? This can be as simple as reaching out and contacting people, visiting them, asking advice on how to bring minority viewpoints into lessons, asking for advice on the complexities of alternative readings of history, belief and worldview.

Social justice as a notion seeks to level the playing field, to empower the disenfranchised, to acknowledge the forgotten, to give voice to the marginalised. It is challenging and uncomfortable as well as rewarding, complex and not given to quick fixes. Above all it is an open-ended process, a process which, once entered into, does not stop, working towards an unrealisable ideal which must, nonetheless, be striven for.

Lastly, working towards a socially just education can be linked to striving to embody aspects of the consciousness soul, taking Elan Leibner’s definition of the consciousness soul (6) as the “empathetic soul”. For me, working towards social justice, towards inclusion and decolonisation requires and is what happens when you have empathy for the Other. Feeling within yourself how the Other suffers when marginalised, oppressed, caricatured or rendered invisible, and not just understanding or knowing it, marks the beginning of change. It is an important step towards social renewal, which lies at the heart of the Waldorf movement.

To read more about Neil Boland and to access the full article and references please visit waldorf-resources.org