Being Glued to Smartphones Can Curb Creativity, Research Shows


Dec 5, 2022


Image Credit: Denise D'souza for The Swaddle

In the era of smartphones and instant gratification, it’s become easier to keep boredom at bay. The moment we start to get bored, all we have to do is reach for our phones, and either scroll through social media, or log into an OTT platform to binge on our favorite shows. But as Mark McGuinness, a creative coach, once wondered, “Could the death of boredom mean the death of your creativity?”

Published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a new study does suggest that being glued to our smartphones can indeed curb our brains’ creative capacity.

The researchers identified a small set of 48 participants — aged between 18 and 25 — using the Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS). When they were assigned a creative task — to come up with alternate uses of an everyday object within a short frame of time — individuals with high SAS scores performed poorly in terms of fluency, flexibility, and originality.

Through neuroimaging, the researchers found that among participants with a high SAS score, the brain’s prefrontal cortex and temporal areas were not as active when asked to think creatively, compared to those with low SAS scores.

Creative congnition — defined, largely, as “a set of mental processes that support the generation of novel and useful ideas” — is based on inhibitory control and working memory, among other factors. As such, the link between greater smartphone use and reduced creativity, makes sense.

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This isn’t the first time research has linked smartphone use with aspects of cognition. Another study — published in June year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health — also relied on SAS scores to measure how addicted its 111 participants were to their smartphones. Then, the researchers assessed the impact of the addiction on the participants’ cognitive abilities. They observed that people with high SAS scores exhibited poor working memories and behavioral inhibitions. Compared with individuals with low SAS scores, they also had worse visual and auditory reaction times.

Yet another study — published a decade ago in Perspectives on Psychological Science — had also pointed to smartphone-users feeling more bored easily, compelling them to seek greater stimulation from screens, and trapping them in a vicious cycle.

“The reflexive pulling-out of my [smartphone]… was, I suddenly realized, very similar to [a] nail-biting habit, except in one important respect: biting my nails occupied only a tiny proportion of my brain capacity and it could, in fact, by warding off distracting thoughts, help me concentrate on reading that book or doing that sum,” Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist who wasn’t involved in either of the recent studies, wrote in Psychology Today. “The [smartphone] habit, on the other hand, is neurally all-consuming — vision, touch, memory, thinking are all full-on occupied by this gorgeously shiny piece of technological seduction and its inspired, all-consuming software systems.”

“Always being on your smartphone can interfere with your memory and creativity,” Robertson added.

“The problem is we’ve become passive recipients of stimulation… Boredom isn’t a nice feeling, so we have an urge to eradicate it and cope with it in a counterproductive way,” noted John Eastwood, lead author of the 2012 study and psychologist at York University in Toronto. “We say, ‘I’m bored, so I’ll put on the TV or go to a loud movie.’ But boredom is like quicksand: the more we thrash around, the quicker we’ll sink.” And in the process, creativity suffers.

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Past research has also indicated that when we’re bored, and our minds are unfocused and wandering, our brains might just be more actively engaged than ever. “People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty… [But] mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined,” Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, had told The Wall Street Journal. According to Christoff, an unfocused and wandering mind can often be the breeding ground of creativity.

However, this doesn’t mean the existence of technology per se stifles creativity. For one, research suggests that video games can, in fact, train our minds to be more creative.

Technology allows for greater flow of information and increased access to ideas, which can, arguably, boost creativity. “Technology doesn’t only enable creativity, but nurtures it. Through platforms like YouTube, anyone with an Internet connection can hone their skills and be inspired by others, while meeting sites allow budding musicians, writers or filmmakers to get together and explore ideas and techniques,” contends an article on Raconteur. “In the past, there were barriers to creative success that technology has eroded. Thanks to the Internet, artists in tiny villages can reach a broad audience on the other side of the planet, and we in turn can experience kinds of creativity borne out of vastly different cultures, which enhances our own.”

This brings us to the old adage: too much of everything is bad. In moderation, technology can not only boost creativity, but also help people channel it. Yet, being addicted to technology in the form of smartphones, can suppress it.

At present, smartphone addiction isn’t classified as a disorder under the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), but many researchers are making a case for it.


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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