With digital devices, it all depends on content and context of their use

An interview with Professor Christian Montag about the relationship between people and digitalisation. Montag was a guest speaker at the Phorms Campus München’s own discussion and lecture event ‘Talking Phorms’. He gave a talk entitled: ‘Excessive use of smartphones and other devices’
Author: Luise Maron | Illustration: Friederike Schlenz | Photo: Elvira Eberhardt/Universität Ulm | 2019/1

What opportunities and dangers do you think the future of digitalisation holds?

Prof Montag: I firmly believe that digitalisation in itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. If we’re trying to seriously assess the impact of technology, then we need to consider first and foremost how digital content/devices are being used and in what context. If we use the devices properly, they boost our productivity. For example, when I’m travelling in a city I don’t know, I use the Google Maps application, which helps me reach my destination more quickly. In short, the device makes me more productive. When I’m working in China, I enjoy seeing my family every day via Skype. So these devices or forms of technology have actually become a necessity in this fast-paced, digital age, where there is particular demand for flexibility and mobility. With this new technology, we can communicate easily, quickly and directly. This is a fantastic achievement that demonstrates the positive sides of digitalisation.

When do digital devices start making us less productive?

Frequent smartphone use can breed unproductive habits. After all, the constant availability of smartphones and the range of apps and features tempt us into spending all of our time on them, therefore fragmenting our daily lives. Having our phones constantly switched on – even just to keep an eye on the time – causes regular interruptions that cut into our productive working time. Smartphone users also process a lot of information they read on a purely superficial level, as so-called ‘deep learning’ is often no longer possible. Online newspapers have already adapted to this change by providing bite-sized summaries of their stories – these chunks of information enable the reader to consume as much as they can within a short space of time, but without really having to think about it. The permanent presence of smartphones has instilled in us a kind of ‘fear of missing out’, while training us to neglect any moments of real, enjoyable downtime, which could otherwise be a perfect time for our creativity to flow.

What can parents do to try to prevent ‘Excessive use of smartphones and other devices’?

Parents can set an example. If a parent is constantly on their own phone, the child will conclude that the device must be incredibly fascinating. Small children, in particular, imitate what they see around them, a pattern confirmed by the experiments conducted by Albert Bandura in the 1960s. Parents should try to make sure that the majority of their smartphone use is purposeful, for example by only using it in the study or during working hours. Psychologists refer to this as ‘spatial conditioning’. This obviously requires a certain level of discipline that we don’t always have, including myself. If, in this age of the attention economy, we’re spending around two or more hours a day on our smartphones (generally on our own), we’re losing time that could be spent with our kids, time we can never get back. In most cases, the problem isn’t actually the smartphones or the internet themselves, but rather the excessive use of applications or their content. If parents are constantly looking at their phones, it builds a kind of communication wall. This wall prevents children from effectively learning how to decipher non-verbal information (reading emotions from facial expressions), as their parents’ faces are always hidden.

Why is traditional, real-life playtime important for children and teenagers?

Psychology professor Jaak Panksepp’s experiments, which involved electrically stimulating animals’ brains, revealed seven genetically embedded emotional systems that also play a crucial role in our species, Homo sapiens. One of these systems is the play instinct, which is a fundamental genetic need for mammals. If animals don’t play enough, they start exhibiting unusual behaviour. When it comes to children, physical play (running about, tussling, etc.) is, among other things, essential for their development between the ages of three and ten. Through play, children learn basic motor skills, which can be stunted by premature exposure to digital content. If traditional play is replaced by screen time at an early age, physical playtime is neglected, and that can cause problems. Traditional play also helps children to develop social skills, as direct interaction teaches them empathy. My guess would be that digitalisation is at least making it more difficult for children to gain or build on these basic skills. But this is yet to be confirmed by long-term studies. In any case, digital devices present kids with a constant competition between digital and real-life playtime. As children don’t have as much capacity for self-discipline as adults, I think they should spend as little time consuming digital media as possible. But there’s nothing wrong with playing a round of a smartphone or computer game every now and then, if the child has completed their homework, is doing well at school and has enjoyed enough outdoor playtime with other children – i.e. when their play instinct has been satisfied.

From what age would you recommend having a smartphone?

Let me just reword that question: ‘From what age should children have their own smartphone?’ I’d estimate that children don’t need their own smartphone until they’re about 12 years old. Platforms such as Instagram can cause body image issues, especially for girls. Constant social comparison is another dangerous aspect of social media use. Social media can create the impression that the grass is generally greener elsewhere. But adults shouldn’t demonise smartphones or their range of applications, either. They should make it clear to their children from the start that social media presents an image of an airbrushed world, with a bunch of filters on it, and that nobody is perfect. So I actually think it’s important that children under 12 are allowed to look at digital social platforms with their parents. 


Make a conscious effort to consume less digital media on your own and be sure to switch off your devices every now and then

Enjoy some‘offline downtime’ and give your thoughts space to roam

Why not use an analogue alarm clock instead of your smartphone?


How much time am I spending on my smartphone?


is a free app developed by Prof Montag with other computer scientists and psychologists from the University of Ulm. One of its functions is to show smartphone users which apps they use most often. The app is part of a research project investigating mobile phone use.


is a free self-testing platform, which sends users a report of how problematic their own smartphone behaviour tends to be in comparison with a large number of users. The app provides separate reports for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. This analysis helps users to better evaluate their own habits.


Prof Christian Montag is a Heisenberg Professor of Molecular Psychology at the University of Ulm. His main areas of research include psychoinformatics, in particular the effect of the internet, mobile phones and computer games on our emotionality, personhood and society.

Read now: