Expert Commentary

Smartphones are distracting even when you’re not using them

Almost everyone has a smartphone. They can be distracting. But new research shows they may also impair our ability to think straight even when we’re not using them.

smartphone computer mac
(Alejandro Escamilla/Unsplash)

Smartphones have appropriated a prized place in our pockets faster than anyone could have imagined 10 years ago, in 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone. Today, billions of people around the world have regular access to the internet through smartphones. In America, 77 percent of adults had a smartphone in 2016; we tap, click and swipe, on average, 2,617 times per day. And most of us have our phones at our side almost every moment of every day. New research looks at what the ubiquity of our smartphones — even when we’re not using them — is doing to the way we think.

An academic study worth reading: “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2017.

Study summary: Building on research that demonstrates how smartphones are distracting, Adrian Ward of the University of Texas at Austin led a team that conducted two experiments to test “how dependence on these devices affects the ability to think and function in the world off-screen.” They are interested in how the mere presence of a smartphone can impair cognition — a phenomenon they call “brain drain.”

In the experiments, Ward and his team ask participants to do one of three things with their phones: place them on the desk and within site, place them nearby but out of sight (such as in a pocket or purse), or place them in a separate room.

In the first experiment, the researchers randomly assigned 520 undergraduate smartphone users to one of these three conditions, doing so in a way that would not alert the subjects that anything related to phone use was being tested. The students were also instructed to turn their phones to a silent, non-vibrating mode. The researchers then subjected the undergraduates to a series of tests to measure available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence. At the end, subjects answered questions about how often they thought of their smartphones.

In the second experiment, the researchers again randomly assigned 275 undergraduates to one of the three location conditions; in addition, half were instructed to turn their phones off. Again they were subjected to a series of tests to measure available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence. Then the researchers asked a series of questions on the way the students use their phones to test dependence and emotional attachment to these devices. (For example, high dependence could be deduced from a statement like, “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone.”)

Key takeaways:

  • In the first experiment, participants in the “other room” category scored higher in a range of cognitive tasks (memory, focus, problem solving) than those in the “desk” category. Participants in the “pocket” category did not score significantly differently than either other category.
  • The researchers found no relationship between conscious thinking about the smartphone and the location of the smartphone, suggesting, in combination with the above findings, “that the mere presence of one’s smartphone may impair cognitive functioning even when it does not occupy the contents of consciousness.” That is, the presence of a smartphone seems to use up cognitive capacity, even when one is not consciously thinking about it.
  • Most participants did not believe the location of their phones affected their performance: 75.9 percent said, “not at all.” 85.6 percent said the location “neither helped nor hurt” their performance.
  • The second experiment found similar results as the first, though the on/off condition did not correlate with cognition.
  • The higher a user’s dependence on his or her smartphone, the worse the user performed on the cognitive tests. “Ironically, the more consumers depend on their smartphones, the more they seem to suffer from their presence — or, more optimistically, the more they may stand to benefit from their absence.”
  • Placing a smartphone face-down or turning it off do not appear to lessen the brainpower it consumes.
  • The only thing the authors believe will help people who wish to increase their focus and cognition is to separate themselves from their smartphones — by, for example, placing the devices in another room. 

Helpful resources:

  • The Pew Research Center surveys Americans and people around the world about their smartphone use.
  • IHS Markit, a business analytics firm, predicts there will be six billion smartphones in use globally by 2020 (when the world population is expected to reach 7.76 billion).

Other research:

  • Researchers have shown that 89 percent of mobile phone users experience phantom vibrations — the feeling that one’s phone is vibrating even when it’s not.
  • A 2014 working paper from the University of Pittsburgh demonstrates the negative effects mobile phones have on decision making.
  • This 2015 paper in PLoS One compares smartphone users’ estimates of how much time they use their devices with real usage patterns.
  • We have reviewed a 2016 study that found smartphone users trust strangers less and a 2014 study that found people had richer conversations with each other when one was not distracted by a smartphone.
  • We have also reviewed research on distracted driving, social media distractions, and the impact of texting laws on motor vehicle fatalities.

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