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Are we heading for a digital amnesia epidemic?

Scientists are saying that our dependence on smartphones to remember important information could be harming our memories

Whether you like it or not, smartphones are irrevocably part of our lives. For many of us, they bookend our days, as we wake in the morning to the tinny chime of an iPhone alarm and drift off at night after numbing our brains with TikTok. And as for our waking hours: Gen Z has a staggering average screentime of 7 hours and 20 minutes a day.

To be fair, not all of this time is spent doomscrolling or perusing niche meme accounts – much of it is spent doing ‘practical’ things, like jotting down notes or reminders. According to a survey by Kaspersky Lab, 91 per cent of people use the internet “as an extension of their brains”, with 21 per cent relying on their memories alone to remember information.

Treating our phones as such is wreaking havoc with our ability to recall information. Personally, I would be a total mess without my phone: my Notes app is a chaotic miscellany of lists – groceries, birthday present ideas, things I need to do – while my camera roll is littered with screenshots of articles I want to read and recipes I want to try. My sense of direction is also totally nonexistent, lying dormant in an entirely unexercised part of my brain which has always outsourced its work to Google Maps or Citymapper. 

Ella, 24, feels similarly. She tells me that she relies on her phone to remember things, from the timings of her work shifts to the passwords. “If I’ve changed a password and I haven't written it down in my notes app, there's no way I'm going to remember what it is,” she says. “My phone definitely helps me remember things, but I do feel that social media usage has impacted my memory. When I’m on social media I'm just constantly consuming content and news and information all the time. It’s like my brain is full.” Ella isn’t alone: research affirms that excessive mobile phone use can lead to memory loss.

Dr Sam Gilbert is a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL. “There is evidence that some aspects of short-term memory can be harmed and others helped by using your phone as a memory device. For example, if you store something like a shopping list in your phone and it then runs out of battery, you will probably find that you remember it less well than if you had relied on your own memory all along,” he says. “On the other hand, your memory for other things will probably be improved if you do not spend all your time thinking about the shopping list.”

Arguably, ‘outsourcing’ our memories isn’t really anything especially new. We’ve been creating tangible reminders for centuries: Leonardo da Vinci wrote to-do lists, Samuel Pepys wrote a diary, Victorians took photographs with their deceased loved ones to honour their memory. So is this just talk of phones rotting our brains just another moral panic that is grossly exaggerating the issue at hand? Dr Gilbert seems to think so. “People have worried about ‘outsourcing’ the task of remembering for almost as long as we have had the technologies. For example, over 2,000 years ago Socrates warned that writing things down might make people forgetful,” he says. “In my opinion, these fears are greatly overstated.”

“Some very strange effects have been claimed, for example, the idea that simply having your phone visible in front of you can harm your memory or even reduce your IQ,” he continues. “These studies have tended to be quite limited, and more recent evidence has failed to back up their conclusions. So this evidence needs to be treated with scepticism too.”

“People have worried about ‘outsourcing’ the task of remembering for almost as long as we have had the technologies [...] over 2,000 years ago Socrates warned that writing things down might make people forgetful” – Dr Sam Gilbert

“It’s certainly true that phones can cause distraction, so they definitely can impact cognitive function in this respect. But I do not know of any clear evidence that phones cause long-term cognitive harm. Claims like this tend to be based on low-quality evidence which fails to establish a true effect,” he says. “It’s a central part of being human that we use tools to enhance our abilities – this includes both physical and mental tools. If we were forced to rely on nothing but our brains and bodies, our abilities would be greatly limited.”

It’s evident that many of us are taking advantage of tech to record the minutiae of our lives. Take the rising popularity of apps like BeReal and 1 Second Everyday (1SE), which allow users to create visual diaries, or the ‘memories’ or ‘archive’ features on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. Sometimes these are unwelcome reminders – if you’re feeling lonely it’s doubtful you want to see a reminder that 365 days ago you were sharing a sushi platter with your ex. Sometimes we live vicariously through our past selves, reposting ‘on this day’ pictures from our archives when our present lives are less exciting.

There’s no way anyone would be able to recall at will what they were doing on any given day from the past ten years using sheer brain power – a quick glance at my own Instagram archive tells me that on this day last year, a new leaf unfurled on my cheese plant, a small detail I would have otherwise forgotten – so why shouldn’t we make the most of this? “I like going back through my pictures and videos on social media archives sometimes,” Ella says. “My Facebook memories are just chaotic as fuck – like, there are Taio Cruz lyrics I posted on Facebook in year eight.”

Mayanne Soret, writer and the co-founder of Tabloid Art History, tells me she uses social media as a way of documenting her media diet. “I use apps like Goodreads and Letterboxd and TV Time to keep track of what I want to consume and what I have consumed,” she says. She adds that she believes we’re all more inclined to commemorate the little things as a result of the pandemic, as witnessed in the rise of ‘casual’ posting on apps like BeReal and mundane photo dumps on Instagram.

“We suddenly couldn’t have access to life events like weddings and graduations. We needed to find another way to make sense of our lives,” she continues. “Our society is built around linear growth and milestone achievements, and we make sense of this through the material and the visual. Without either, there’s very little way to commemorate existential changes.”

Even though we’re now out of lockdown, many of us are still finding it hard to make sense of time passing – a 2021 survey by memory researcher Catherine Loveday found that 80 per cent of participants felt that their memory is worse now than before the pandemic. “‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ is a joke, but I do think personal photographic archives are a part of how we understand the direction of our lives and make sense of it,” Mayanne says.

Evidently, it’s not as simple as saying ‘phones are rotting our brains’. As Dr Gilbert points out, we’ve been using tools to help us remember things since time immemorial, and most of us can agree it’s fun to scroll through archives and remind ourselves of happy times. That said: if you feel like your attention is being pulled in a thousand different directions – or, as Ella says, like your “brain is full” – it might be best to put your phone down for a bit and try to focus on the here and now.