Seven uncomfortable truths we ignore about our phones

You no longer have to be the smartest person in the room to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to be the one person not using a phone.


I jokingly tell my freshmen that their future valedictorian will be the one person who doesn’t have a smartphone. I’ve decided this joke is slowly becoming a cruel reality.

Disturbance in the Force

Several years ago, something began to change in my classroom. It was subtle at first. But like a Jedi Master sensing a disturbance in the Force I knew it was happening. My students were becoming increasingly distracted. I found it harder and harder to maintain their attention. They in ever growing numbers adopted the mantra, “Why do the assignment now when I can do it later…at the last minute?”

It took me while to put my finger on the disturbance, but it finally revealed itself. It was their mobile devices.

Being an early adopter and lover of technology I welcomed these devices into my classroom. I believed my students would become content creators. I believed my students would use their devices to access the full wealth of all recorded human knowledge. I believed my students would utilize their devices to create on a scale that I could have only imagined at their age.

I could not have been more wrong.

None of my students were interested in creating the next big thing. Few even wanted to be content creators. They were happy as content consumers binging on whatever drivel their favorite social media influencer recommended. An assignment due on Friday couldn’t compete with the immediacy of a phone’s notification.


This sad realization made me curious. Why was this happening? Why were so many of my students struggling to complete assignments? Why did my students struggle to put their phones away and leave them put away?

I spent months reading everything I could find on the topic from Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked to adding it as a Google News Alert and topic on my Flipboard. From this research came these seven uncomfortable truths and four possible solutions.

Uncomfortable Truths

Uncomfortable Truth 1: Your ability to focus and perform tasks is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach — even if it’s off.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin wanted to measure the effect people’s smartphones have as they attempt complex tasks. Before beginning, 800 participants were instructed to place their smartphones on the desk face down, in their backpack, or left in another room. All phones were set to silent.


Participants took a series of tests designed to measure available cognitive capacity. That’s the brain’s ability to process and retain data. For those who aren’t in the field of education, that’s what we have our students do at school all day every day.

The group that left their phones in another room scored the best. In fact, they significantly outperformed the group who’s phones were left on the desk despite the fact that these devices were set to silent and laying upside down.

They also outperformed those whose phones remained in a backpack.

In short, having your smartphone in sight or even easily accessible reduces your ability to focus and perform tasks. The reason? Your brain is using some of it’s available cognitive capacity actively focusing on not picking up and using the mobile device.

Imagine the improvements in learning you could have in your class just by banishing these devices from sight or even better from the room.

Uncomfortable Truth 2: Using our mobile devices make us dumber.

Researchers have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone is enough to reduce cognitive capacity and that was without receiving notifications. What impact does actually using a mobile device have on our cognitive capacity?

The New York Times asked researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab to design an experiment to measure the effect of electronic interruptions on brain power.

Like the previous study, participates were divided into three groups. All three groups read a passage and answered related questions. The first group was allowed to complete the test without interruption. The other two groups were told to keep their phones close as they might be contact for further instructions at any moment. These two groups were both interrupted…twice.

The results show that both interrupted groups answered 20 percent fewer questions correct.


In other words, notifications combined with the brain drain of preparing for those notifications makes us 20 percent dumber. That means:

  • A student who might have scored a 100 percent has slid to an 80.
  • The student who historically achieved a B has transformed into a D student.
  • Students who would have traditionally scored a 74 percent or less are now failing.

Uncomfortable Truth 3: Most people can’t resist using their mobile device…for more than two minutes.

A professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills observed 263 students studying. They were asked to focus on an important school project for 15 minutes. Despite knowing they were being watched, most students could not resist using their smartphones. In fact, most started using them at about the two minute mark. Of the 15 minutes, students on average only spent nine minutes and 18 seconds or 65 percent of the time studying.


That means those two hours of essay writing and intense study that your child insists happened last night was probably closer to 74 minutes if a mobile device was in the room.

Uncomfortable Truth 4: Using our mobile devices are incredibly dangerous, and we’re okay with that.

Last year marked the deadliest year on American roads in nearly a decade. As the percentage of smartphone ownership has increased so has the number of people injured and killed in auto accidents involving a mobile device.


With near ubiquitous smartphone use, it should come as no surprise that today they represent involvement in 25 percent of all auto accidents or 1.6 million annually.

Just think how 15 years ago that’s 1.6 million accidents that didn’t happen.

Starting in 1999, the United States experienced a year-after-year decrease in auto accidents for six consecutive years. But that trend ended in 2005 with the rise of SMS and has been increasing ever since.


It takes approximately five seconds for a person to read / compose a text message. Five seconds doesn’t sound like a long time–one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi, four mississippi, five mississippi--but it is.


Five second behind the wheel is a long time. At 55 mph, you just traveled the length of a football field without looking at the road. Unfortunately, there’s no touch down waiting for you in the end zone but rather becoming a statistic as another one of the hundreds of thousands of people that are injured or killed every year in cell phone related car accidents

Combine that with the knowledge that every day 660,000 people use their cell phone while driving a car. That’s a lot of people speeding down the road one football field at a time not looking at the road. In fact, driving while intexticated makes you 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident. That’s scary!

How is there not a nation wide ban on using your phone while driving?


Uncomfortable Truth 5: Using our mobile devices is as pleasurable as having sex.

Why do we have such a hard time putting our phones away? Despite knowing that using them makes us dumber and 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident, why can’t we keep them put away?

The reason is simple. Using our phones is pleasurable. Very pleasurable. On a chemical level, as pleasurable as having sexual intercourse. Think about that the next time your entire study hall is quietly curled up with their devices.

Notifications, rewards, texts, maintaining streaks, unlocking chest, and leveling up, it all releases dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good. When something feels good, it’s hard to stop. For young minds still developing self-control, keeping that phone put away despite the consequences is almost impossible. Not to mention the the track record of poor decision making tweens and teenagers regularly demonstrate.

Releases Dopamine

Uncomfortable Truth 6: Using our mobile devices lights up the brain like heroin. 

Two years after releasing the iPad, a journalist asked Steve Jobs what his children thought about the revolutionary device. His response was surprising.

Jobs said, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Jobs knew the cardinal rule that every successful drug dealer respects. Don’t get high on your own stash. 

Jobs isn’t the only tech titan with strict device limitations for his children. Bill Gates is another. He implemented a cap on screen time and his children didn’t get cell phones until they turned 14. Today, the average age for children getting their first phone is ten.

In fact there is a growing number of wealthy Silicon Valley parents that despite making their fortunes creating and investing in technology prohibit their children from using it. Not to mention they send their children to private schools that do not rely on technology. So what do these tech executives know about their own products that the general public doesn’t? It’s probably just how addictive these digital devices really are.

Digital Heroin

Despite dopamine making us feeling good, studies have shown that the more we use these devices the worse we feel. Like an addict, chasing that first high we need more rewards, more likes, more streaks, more notifications to get the same high.

This is especially true for girls. Every day before school, between classes, and at lunch I see distraught female students clutching their phones like a security blanket furiously typing. Little do they know that much of their angst comes the very device in which they seek solace. Studies have shown that people who stopped using social media feel better about themselves a week later than those who continued to use the platforms.


Research has shown that smartphone use increases loneliness and depression, helps fuel anxiety, increases stress, exacerbates attention deficit disorders, diminishes your ability to concentrate and think deeply or creatively, disturbs your sleep, and encourages self-absorption.

Uncomfortable Truth 7: Fewer screens, not more.

In January of this year, Harvard professor Darren Rosenblum banned laptops from his classroom. Almost immediately he found that student engagement improved. In a New York Times editorial, Rosenblum wrote the following:

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning.

A report in Psychological Science found that students retain more information when taking notes by hand as opposed to on a laptop. Maybe I should amend my opening statement.

You no longer have to be the smartest person in the room to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to be the one person not using a phone and taking notes by hand.


Many students fall victim to the myth of multitasking. But it’s a lie we like to tell ourselves. In reality, you are just rapidly toggling between tasks. This start-stop-start again process is mentally exhausting. It makes us less efficient and prone to making mistakes.

Even if a student is trying to pay attention, they often have one eye on the screen ready for that unexpected notification and the hit of dopamine it brings.

When students do have the will power to go two minutes without reaching for their phones, in all likelihood there will be an notification from that device sometime in the next nine minutes. An article in The Wall Street Journal reported that most workers only get 11 minutes between interruptions. Unfortunately, it takes another 25 minutes to return to the original task.


Limit smartphone use. 
For starters, you can do this by shutting off your phone’s notifications especially while working, learning, studying, and (definitely while) driving. No notifications mean no distractions. If you have the self-control, switch it to airplane mode or better yet off.

Physically separate yourself for your phone.
The closer your phone is the more distracting it becomes. Make your children leave their phone with you while studying and doing homework. Not only will they learn more, they will get done faster.

In the classroom, don’t let your students lay their phones on their desks. Force them out of sight and into a backpack if possible. The simple act of removing a mobile device from the equation has the potential to make a student 20 percent smarter.


Write things down by hand.
Research has repeatedly shown that taking notes by hand demonstrates better understanding and ability to recall of concepts.

Try the app, BeePresent.
As an educator, I realize all three of those things are easier said than done. That’s why I am excited to announce that we are just weeks away from releasing a revolutionary new  app, BeePresent, that actually discourages classroom smartphone use through gamification. The app applies many of the same principles that keep you using an app but flips the concept by encouraging you to not use the device to earn the rewards.


Students earn coins for not using their phone during class. The more people that participate the more coins you can potentially earn. If you switch your phone to do not disturb, the coin earning multiplier increases. There’s even double jeopardy and sudden death modes for use during tests or other specials events to further incentivize non-phone use.

At the end of class, you receive a detailed report documenting how many coins each student earned, how many times each person’s phone was unlocked, and how many minutes the devices was unlocked. Think what you could do with that data.

For more curated news and information about about the effects of mobile devices on learning, behavior, and society in general follow the BeePresent app on Twitter or Facebook.

The opinions expressed here are solely my own. They do not, in any way, represent those of my employer, my co-workers, or my dog.



  1. […] The opinions expressed here are solely my own. They do not, in any way, represent those of my employer, my co-workers, or my dog. If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in reading The biggest risk to student learning is in their pocket. Why you need to BAN smartphones from your classroom, Why a technology teacher banned tech from his classroom, and Seven uncomfortable truths we ignore about our phones. […]

Leave a Reply