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 take snapshots, collectively producing more than 1.4 trillion digital photos each year. 4.5 billion images are 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 banned by municipalities, schoolsand museums. Taking pictures on our phones is often seen as part of a larger problematic trend of constant device and social media use harming our mental health, especially among young people.

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

By directing our focus, the act of taking photos can capture 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 stands out can bolster enjoyment, understanding, and memory. in a series of studiesWe found that participants who were encouraged to take photos during bus tours, meals, and museum visits had more enjoyment and remembered better than those without 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 pictures that can enrich our experiences and help us become more mindful. Why, then, does photography get such a bad rap?

Part of the problem is that the act of taking photos gets mixed up with the act of sharing them. Too much focus on selecting and sharing photos for others rather than yourself can have negative effects. in a 2017 study, we contacted people who were about to take pictures at a tourist site. Those who planned to share the images rated their enjoyment of the experience much lower than those who planned to keep them as personal memories.

These findings align with existing investigation showing that a preoccupation with social media can be distracting and detrimental to our mental health, especially for young people. But problems tend to be the result of overuse of social media or devices, not necessarily the act of taking photos itself.

With just a little bit of self-awareness, we can reap the benefits of using our phones for photography and avoid some of the downsides. To improve mindfulness, here are four questions to ask yourself before taking photos on your phone:

1. How will taking photos affect my commitment to this moment?

If you’re going on an adventure where you’ll have your hands full, it may be better to leave your phone in your pocket or not take it with you. But for less active activities, like a visit to a museum, our research suggests that taking pictures of what you find interesting can increase your enjoyment and improve your visual memory. The key is to pay attention to what you are photographing. If you take a photo mindlessly so that you can examine a scene or object later while quickly moving away from it in the present, then taking the photo will not have these beneficial effects.

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

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

You should also consider whether listening to or looking at the world around you is more important. Because of how our attention works, when we take photos, we automatically pick up fewer auditory elements of a scene. in a study In our study with visitors to a museum exhibit, we found that taking photos strengthened visual memory but decreased people’s ability to remember the audio guide, meaning they may have missed bits of information that could have helped them better understand what exactly they were looking for. in.

3. Do I take these photos for myself or for others?

Our research has found that taking photos with the intention of sharing them with others via social media reduces our enjoyment of experiences. It makes us too 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 could make you happier taking and sharing photos.

4. Will my taking of pictures be too disturbing?

Documenting for the future should not disturb the present. It is important for each of us to be aware of how taking pictures affects not only us, but also those around us. Whether at a concert or in a cathedral, institutions can take steps to prevent one person’s taking photos from disrupting others trying to immerse themselves in an experience. However, lawmakers should be wary of trying to protect us from ourselves simply based on the false notion 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 having a visual record of a moment, person or place. Our research shows that taking pictures can also change our experience in the moment, making us more engaged and helping us remember it more clearly.

Having a camera in your pocket wherever you go is relatively new. We are still working out the social norms and personal guidelines for how to use our devices in beneficial ways. But if you’re aware of what you’re doing and really taking photos for yourself, then go ahead and take that photo! You won’t ruin the moment. In fact, you may be making it a little sweeter.

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


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