Checking Your Smartphone and Social Networks Could Be Harming the Economy

Smartphone Apps
The WhatsApp app logo is seen on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken September 15, 2017 Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo/Reuters

How many times have you checked your phone this morning? What about the last hour? What about while reading this sentence?

For many of us, this writer included, the answer is probably alarmingly high. And we all like to complain about the effects on our lives, from lost attention span to "Fomo" as your work day is peppered with gorgeous vistas from holidays you weren't invited to or parties you didn't attend.

But, according to a new blog by Dan Nixon, who works at the Bank of England in its Content and Strategy Division, our app-hungry habits might be having a wider impact on the health of the U.K. economy itself, thanks to lost productivity.

The so-called "productivity puzzle"—the question of why Britain's growth in economic productivity has been so weak since the late-00s—is central to many of the country's current and forthcoming economic problems.

Nobody can agree on why this is happening, and there's likely no one simple cause, but Nixon writes that competition for our attention between work and tempting distractions like smartphone apps and newsfeeds could be one part of the equation.

"The intuition is simple enough: our minds comprise the bulk of our human capital and what we direct our attention towards is integral to the 'output' of our mental activity," he writes.

"You would therefore expect the ability to pay attention to be a key input into productivity."

While he cautions that there is "little" in the academic literature linking the importance of attention in the workplace and productivity in the whole economy, and says he cannot give a "definitive" answer, Nixon gives two reasons why distractions at work such as smartphones and emails could harm productivity.

First, he points to "the direct impact of distractions on the amount of effective time spent working." He points out that surveys have shown people spend an alarming amount of time on social media at work, with one study putting the figure at one hour on average and 1.8 hours for milennials.

Second, Nixon flags up "persistently lower productivity caused by habitually distracted minds."

"Frequent distractions might lead to a persistently lower capacity to work, over and above the direct effects," Nixon writes.

For example, one study found that "workers who get interrupted by external stimuli (e.g. message notifications) are significantly more likely to later go on to 'self-interrupt'—stop what they're doing and switch to something else before reaching a break point."