Smartphone Brain Drain

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Volume 13, Number 9

One major change in the lives of persons living in developed countries over the past decade is the presence of smartphones. According to the Pew Research Center, as of January of this year, 77% of all American adults and 92% of those under age 35 have smartphones. Smartphones are ever present, are increasingly used as assistants for a variety of tasks, and function as sources of unlimited information. Suggestive of how much smartphones can become a part of a person’s life, signals from one’s own smartphone can evoke an involuntary response similar to hearing one’s name called.

Are “smart” phones aptly named with respect to their effect on human functioning? A recently published article in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (JACR) reported the results of experiments that examined the impact of the mere presence of one’s smartphone on cognitive performance. While completing measures of cognitive function, research participants’ smartphones were either face down on the desk where each participant was sitting, in the participant’s pocket or bag, or in another room. Participants whose phones were left in another room performed significantly better than did participants in the other two conditions, and whether or not phones were powered on or off did not affect these results. Separation from one’s smartphone was associated with better cognitive functioning.

Human attentional capacity is limited, such that people are either automatically or intentionally directing their attention at any point in time. Attention focused on one task reduces attention available for another, which is why multi-tasking is inefficient unless the multiple tasks are so routinized that very little attention is required. Importantly, inhibiting attention requires a portion of one’s attentional capacity. In other words, keeping oneself from checking one’s smartphone (i.e., inhibiting attention) while attending to something else itself detracts from attention to the other matter. Students studying important material have been found to check their phones at least every 15 minutes, even in the absence of any notification. Of course, a vibrating phone in one’s pocket will potentially be more distracting than if the phone is powered off, but the research suggests that having a “turned-off” smartphone in one’s pocket itself commands some attention because that person may habitually check it frequently.

This smartphone brain drain has obvious implications for learning, problem-solving, and decision-making, but what about health? Certainly many people use their smartphones in ways that are intended to be health-enhancing, such as recording movement/fitness, keeping track of calories, or having the phone provide cues for health-related behavior. On the other hand, there are ways in which smartphones can be detrimental to health, such as paying attention to a smartphone rather than getting sufficient sleep.

Frequent checking of one’s smartphone itself can detract attention from healthy behavior. Extrapolating from the research described above, inhibiting attention to one’s smartphone itself may affect health behavior. Self-control or willpower is known to be a limited and exhaustible cognitive resource. Inhibiting any habitual behavior requires self-control, so that inhibiting the tendency to check one’s smartphone requires some degree of self-control. For example, when self-control is being devoted to the inhibition of smartphone-checking, less self-control may be available for making healthy food choices or managing the quantity of food or beverages consumed.

Periods of separation from one’s smartphone may be a useful strategy to employ. However, being separated from one’s smartphone, particularly if one can hear audible alerts (such as ringing) has been found to increase anxiety, enough to increase heart rate. Therefore, instead of involuntary separation from one’s smartphone, the authors of the JACR article suggest “defined and protected” periods of separation from one’s smartphone when engaged in tasks that require optimal cognitive capacity. And per their experiments, this means more than out of sight, it means separation by at least another room.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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