Are Smartphones affecting our Cognitive Competence?

February 9, 2016 | By Cognadev

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In today’s age of technological advances, the amount of information and resources is increasing at a frenetic rate. More people have access to news, media, scientific articles, services and various endeavours that can be used to simplify our daily lives. It can be said that we have a wealth of information at our fingertips.

According to statistics it has been estimated that 1,859.3 billion people worldwide use smartphones. Specifically in South Africa, total mobile connections as of 2014 have reached an estimated 73 million (active sim cards). Majority of the population in South Africa use their mobile phones primarily to access the internet. Recent statistics have also indicated that 81.6% of the South African population browse the internet through the use of their mobile phones. This emphasises the extensive usage and our reliance on mobile smartphones.

Are Smartphones Replacing Critical Thinking?

Research has suggested that in depth exploration and critical reasoning is being replaced by smartphones which provide easy answers to our questions. In modern society the sight of a smartphone is omnipresent in most spheres of life. People rely on them to perform simple calculations, search information online and access social media.

Various studies have found that people tend to become more inattentive and distracted than usual when using their smartphones frequently. This has resulted in shorter attention spans and a general unawareness of one’s physical surroundings. In addition, those who tend to explore topics on online search engines, may over time get to doubt their own insights and tend to refrain from deep analytical thought. A recent journal article published by Barr, Pennycook, Stolz & Fugelsang in 2015, indicates a tendency amongst smartphone users to look up information that they already know instead of investing energy in encoding and retrieving information from memory. This may indicate uncertainty and reluctance to engage in elaborate encoding of information as knowledge can be accessed externally.

Smartphones can thus be regarded as an extension of our thinking and seen as our external minds. The question that remains is whether there are cognitive repercussions involved with extensive smartphone use and reliance? Future research may be required to shed light on these issues.


“Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just stand there” –Will Rogers

Multitasking occurs when someone tries to perform two or more tasks simultaneously, switch from one task to another, or perform multiple tasks in rapid succession. The use of smartphones requires of us to multitask. However, recent research has shown that multitasking can hamper productivity and people can become more error prone. MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller has stated that our brains are not wired to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and that there are cognitive costs involved from constantly switching from one task to another. Smartphone distractions can thus prevent one from effectively focusing on the task at hand and can result in mental exhaustion.

Metacognition and Improving our Focus and Attention

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We cannot get away from using technology, besides, to always have information at one’s fingertips is most useful. But the attention problems as well as cognitive laziness and superficiality that results from relying on external sources of information, can be mitigated by developing metacognitive skills to guide one’s own critical reasoning processes.

Metacognition refers to the awareness of one’s thinking and forms an important basis for learning and strategising. Initially it is often applied in a conscious way, but over time the use of metacognitive criteria becomes internalised and automatic – almost like walking or driving skills.

Having access to the wealth of information on the internet is valuable, but what really differentiates between effective and ineffective thinkers, is the use of metacognition. It may involve asking oneself questions such as: “Am I doing this correctly?” and “What is my gut feeling about this situation?”

For further information regarding metacognition and how to think effectively please refer to our previous blog on How to Think.

If you are interested in improving your thinking and want to learn to become an even more effective thinker contact Cognadev to assist you with this. We offer the Learning Orientation Index (LOI) catered for the tech savvy Millennials and Generation Y. We also offer the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) to assess the cognitive capability of adults in the workplace. Furthermore we have various cognitive development programs such as the Analytical Thinking Skills and Systems and Strategic Thinking courses.