Technology Do you want to be more present? Try...

Do you want to be more present? Try to take out your phone


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Nowadays almost everyone has a phone in their pocket and it costs nothing to take it out and take a picture. Many of us dart away, collectively taking more than 1.4 trillion digital photos a year. There are 4.5 billion photos shared daily only on WhatsApp, not to mention Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and other platforms.

There is growing resistance to this phenomenon, with phones and selfie sticks being banned municipalities, schoolsAnd museums. Taking pictures on our phones is often seen as part of a wider, problematic trend of constant device and social media use damaging our mental health, especially among young people.

The reality, however, is a bit more complicated. Through my research at USC’s Marshall School of Business, conducted in collaboration with Alix Barasch of the University of Colorado and Gal Zauberman of Yale University, I’ve found that taking photos on our phones can have a number of beneficial effects.

By directing our focus, taking pictures can hold our attention and make us more present. Whether you’re touring a museum or a new city, attending a special event, or trying a different cuisine, zooming in (literally) on what catches your eye can enhance the enjoyment, understanding, and memory. In a series by studieswe found that participants who were encouraged to take photos during bus trips, meals and museum visits had more fun and remembered better than those who didn’t have access to their phones.


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So while constant selfies and compulsive sharing can take us out of the moment, my research shows that there are certain contexts and ways of taking photos that can enrich our experiences and help us be more mindful. So why does taking pictures get such a bad reputation?

Part of the problem is that taking photos is lumped in with sharing them. Too much focus on managing and sharing photos for others rather than for yourself can have negative effects. In a 2017 study, we contacted individuals who were about to take photos at a tourist spot. Those who intended to share the images rated their enjoyment of the experience as much lower than those who intended to keep them as personal memories.

These findings agree existing research proving that a preoccupation with social media can be distracting and detrimental to our mental health, especially for young people. But the problems usually stem from overuse of social media or devices, not necessarily the taking of photos themselves.

With just a little self-awareness, we can reap the benefits of using our phones to take photos while avoiding some of the drawbacks. To improve mindfulness, here are four questions to ask yourself before taking pictures on your phone:

1. How does taking pictures affect my involvement in this moment?

If you’re going on a hands-on adventure, it might be best to leave the phone in your pocket – or not take it at all. But for less active pursuits, such as a tour of a museum, our research suggests that taking pictures of what interests you can increase your enjoyment and improve your visual memory. The key is to really pay attention to what you’re shooting. If you take a picture mindlessly so that you can later examine a scene or object while quickly moving away from it in the present, then taking the picture will not have these beneficial effects.

2. Which elements of this experience are most important for me to capture?

Consider which photos will be the most fun or useful for you in the future. For example, people often take several photos of a beautiful landscape, but afterwards they don’t like looking at these kinds of impersonal photos. Taking a more meaningful photo — perhaps including friends, family, animals, or a unique object that caught your eye — will serve as a better memory aid and be more fun to revisit.

You should also consider whether listening to or watching the world around you is more important. Because of the way our attention works, when taking pictures we automatically include less auditory elements of a scene. In a study we performed with visitors to a museum exhibit, we found that taking photos enhanced visual memory, but dampened people’s ability to recall the audio guide – meaning they may have missed bits of information that could have helped them better understand where they looked right at.

3. Am I taking these photos for myself or for others?

Our research has shown that taking photos with the intention of sharing them with others via social media diminishes our enjoyment of experiences. It makes us overly self-conscious and takes us out of the moment to imagine how people will react to our photos in the future. Being more selective about your social media circle or limiting what and when you post can make you happier while taking and sharing photos.

4. Will taking pictures be overly distracting?

Documenting for the future should not interfere with the present. It is important for all of us to be aware of the impact that taking pictures not only has on us, but also on the people around us. Whether at a concert or a cathedral, institutions can take steps to prevent one person taking photos from interfering with others who are trying to immerse themselves in an experience. However, policy makers should be careful about trying to protect us from ourselves simply on the false idea that taking pictures is always a harmful distraction.

There’s a reason we love taking pictures. Nostalgia, memory, communication and sentimentality can be enhanced by a visual recording of a moment, person or place. Our research shows that taking pictures can also change our experience of the moment, making us more engaged and remembering.

Having a camera in your pocket everywhere is relatively new. We are still working on the social norms and personal guidelines to use our devices in a useful way. But if you are aware of what you are doing, and you actually take pictures for yourself, go ahead and take that picture! You don’t ruin the moment. You might even sweeten it up a bit.

Kristin Diehl is a marketing professor at USC Marshall School of Business. She explores how people anticipate, experience and remember events that unfold over time, particularly through taking photographs.

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