Smartphone Addiction: The Impact Of Your Phone On Your Focus, Attention and Performance
In my last article I wrote about the existence of cell phone addiction and smartphone addiction and about how their use can be problem that is tightly linked to technological developments which can impact on your daily life (have a read of that one here: Is Cell Phone Addiction a Thing? Smartphone Use, Sleep, Anxiety & Depression).
These can include problems such as their use in dangerous situations or prohibited contexts, a loss of interest in other activities, repeated interruptions, periods of insomnia and sleep disturbance, and feelings of irritability, anxiety and loneliness if you are separated from your phone or unable to immediately send or receive messages. And I didn’t even mention other related problems such as online bullying and abuse, hackers and fraudsters.
I also covered a study that found that depression and anxiety scores were higher in a high smartphone use group than in a low smartphone use group. Those researchers concluded that depression, anxiety and sleep quality may be associated with smartphone overuse and that such overuse may lead to depression and/or anxiety, which can in turn result in sleep problems.
And yes our cell phones and smartphones have lots of cool stuff that makes life easier, give us information at our fingertips and mean we can communicate with others wherever and whenever we like. It isn’t all doom and gloom! Yet how we use our smartphones and mobiles can impact on us and we may be blissfully unaware it is happening or even be in denial, such is our reliance upon these devices.
In this article I’m moving on to look at smartphone addiction and the impact your cell phone / smartphone can have on your thinking, focus, attention and performance in ways you may not have even yet considered.
Smartphone Addiction: Are You Overusing Your Smartphone?
Modern smartphones can have all the features of a portable media player, digital camera, GPS system and, let’s not forget, of a mobile phone. You can access websites, download apps, send text messages and make video calls. They are hugely convenient and they fit in your pocket.
Yet, of course, smartphones come with their own hazards. We’ve all seen video clips of someone with their head down on their screen walking into a lamp post or crossing the street without looking. And we (should) all know the dangers of messing around with a smartphone while driving and the hazards and risks of this causing an accident. Then there are the distractions and interruptions that can come from a smartphone which impact on your focus, concentration and on getting things done.
And if you are wondering whether you are addicted to, or over using, your smartphone then there is a Smartphone Addiction Scale that you can complete. Developed by Kwon et al (Development and validation of a smartphone addiction scale, 2013), this covers aspects of smartphone use such as daily life disturbance, positive anticipation, withdrawal and overuse.
Daily life disturbance covers things like missing planned work, struggling to concentrate in class or at work, suffering from wrist or neck pain and sleep disturbance. The scale also looks at aspects around feeling excited about smartphone use, feeling empty without a smartphone or constantly checking it, having it on your mind even when not using it and whether you feel impatient and fretful without it.
As with internet addiction issues, smartphones bring convenience and many useful features yet there is also the risk of smartphone addiction and other less beneficial behaviours that can impact on your thoughts, feelings and actions.
One way that our smartphones have started impacting on us behaviourally and psychologically is through what is called ‘phantom vibration syndrome’.
Phantom Vibration Syndrome
Most of us have had that moment where we think we’ve received a notification, check our mobile phones, and discover that, in fact, we haven’t. It’s perhaps similar to those moments where you think you’ve heard the home landline ring and go and check only to discover it isn’t ringing at all.
Phantom vibration syndrome is that thing where you perceive vibrations from a device that is not really vibrating at all. It’s a recent psychological phenomenon which perhaps has the potential to grow as our reliance on smartphones grows.
Drouin et al (2012) found that in a sample of 290 undergraduates, 89% of them had experienced phantom vibrations which, they write, involve either a misinterpretation of sensory stimuli or, in the absence of sensory stimulation, a tactile hallucination. They acknowledge in that paper that their sample focused on young adults who were more likely to be heavy users of mobile phones and so those of us who are less heavy users may experience less of these false vibration moments.
Interestingly, very few of the participants considered these phantom vibrations to be physically or psychologically bothersome and they are likely just considered as a normal part of the ‘human-mobile phone interactive experience.’ However, those with stronger emotional reactions to text messages, such as feeling disappointed when messages are not received, were more bothered by phantom vibrations and the study authors speculate that ‘text message addiction and phantom vibrations may just be contemporary versions of social sensitivity or social anxiety‘ (Drouin et al, Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics).
Yet whilst people may not be that bothered by these false vibrations, as we get onto some of the other research later in this article, it’s quite possible that these phantom vibrations contribute to more of a ‘brain drain’ effect than we might suspect.
Smartphones, Focus, Attention and Performance
That smartphones can have adverse impacts on our focus and attention is probably not news to you, at least about some aspects.
With regard to driving, for example, ‘typing and reading text messages affects drivers’ capability to adequately direct attention to the roadway, respond to important traffic events, control a vehicle within a lane and maintain speed and headway’ (Caird et al (2014), A meta-analysis of the effects of texting on driving). Texting or reading texts while driving affects your focus and attention in ways that can lead to catastrophic results for you, your passengers and other road users. You get distracted, your visual and mental attention is elsewhere and, in the sphere of driving, that is unsafe.
‘Overall, texting produces visual, physical and cognitive driver distraction. Drivers who have their eyes off the road, their hands off the steering wheel and their thoughts directed elsewhere are an active safety threat. Despite what some drivers may believe about their ability to multi-task or safely text while driving, the accumulated evidence thus far from epidemiologic, observational and experimental research on the safety of texting and driving is negative, unequivocal and convergent‘ (Cairns et al).
Again in the field of driving there is more evidence that our phones affect our attention and focus. Strayer el al (2003) suggested, when looking at the effects of hands-free cell phone conversations on simulated driving, that the use of cellular phones disrupts performance by diverting attention toward an engaging cognitive context other than the external environment immediately associated with driving.
And Horrey et al (2006) in examining the impact of cell phone conversation on driving, found that there are definite costs associated with cell phone use while driving primarily with regard to response time and decision making and that these driving performance costs are equivalent across hands free and handheld phones ‘suggesting that the larger part of these costs is attributable to the cognitive aspects of conversation and not to the manual aspects of holding the phone.‘
Thus it seems pretty apparent that our cell phones / smartphones have a potential to occupy our thinking, focus and attention in ways detrimental to our current performance and decision making. This seems to be the case with writing texts, receiving texts and phone conversations.
With regard to driving, the costs of poor response time, poor decision making or a lack of attention can be catastrophic and hopefully none of us are taking such risks. Yet knowing that our phones can affect our attention and focus, how do our phones impact on our thinking, cognitions and performance in other aspects of life?
Back when I was at school and university, phones, tablets and even computers weren’t really much of a thing. The only cell phones I can remember seeing were the brick sized ones with the pull out ariels that sometimes appeared on TV shows.
These days taking a phone, table or even computer into the classroom is not so uncommon. It’s pretty well established in psychology that when you simultaneously divide your attention between two tasks, one or both is going to negatively impacted. This already starts to suggest that if you are dividing your attention between study and learning and being on a device, then there is probably going to be a negative impact.
In a 2018 study, Glass & Kang (Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance), examined the effect of attention to electronic devices for content and/or tasks unrelated to the immediate classroom activity on both classroom and subsequent exam performance.
They found that dividing attention between an electronic device and the classroom lecture did not reduce comprehension of the lecture, as measured by within-class quiz questions. Instead, divided attention reduced long-term retention of the classroom lecture, which impaired subsequent unit exam and final exam performance.
That is, your comprehension at the time you learn or study may be absolutely fine, but using your phone at the same time can impact on your long term retention of information which, in the academic context, can lead to poorer exam performance.
And whilst this research looked at a college course, it seems likely that a similar pattern may emerge for the retention of any information and learning that you receive whilst also dividing your attention with your phone or other device, you comprehension and understanding at the time may be unaffected but your long term retention of the information may be affected.
The Attentional Cost Of A Notification
All of the above research has tended to focus on situations where you actively engage with your cell phone or smartphone and you are sharing your attention between tasks. But surely if you don’t interact with your device then everything in terms of your attention, focus and performance will be fine? Alas, it seems not.
In a study by Sothart et al (2015), they found that merely receiving a phone notification has an attentional cost (i.e. simply receiving the notification without responding to it). Their results ‘found evidence that cellular notifications, even when one does not view or respond to messages or answer calls, can significantly damage performance on an attention demanding task…we believe that what underlies this effect is the tendency for cellular notifications to prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which persist beyond the duration of the notifications themselves‘ (Stothart et al, The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification).
Just receiving a phone notification can impact on your attention and focus and that distraction can be enough to impact on your performance, even if you do not interact with your phone. In fact, their results suggested that the magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text messaging.
If you want to avoid an impact on your performance then the next logical step may be to consider switching those notifications to silent so that the sound of receiving one can’t have an impact. Surely a silent phone that you do not interact with can’t impact on your focus and attention?
The Mere Presence of Your Smartphone
So what happens in the very common situations that your smartphone is not is use but is merely present?
This issue was looked at in a 2017 study which examined what happens when you simply have your smartphone nearby and in sight or nearby and out of sight. Ward et al (2017) found that even when you are successful at maintaining sustained attention on what you are doing and avoid the temptation to check your phone, the mere presence of your device reduces available cognitive capacity (or creates ‘brain drain’ as they call it).
‘The present research identifies a potentially costly side effect of the integration of smartphones into daily life: smartphone induced “brain drain”…Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds, however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand‘ (Ward et al, Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity).
The specific cognitive capacity measures used in the research were those that support fundamental processes such as learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.
Given how many of us have a tendency to have our phones by our sides or on our desk as we work or study, this is potentially a pretty big deal. Just having your phone there, and not doing anything with it, occupies some of our limited cognitive resources and so leaves fewer mental resources for other tasks and can impinge on your performance in whatever you are doing. It may seem like you are able to remain focused on the task at hand but your cognitive functioning is being affected.
The research also showed that people who depend the most on their smartphones experience this cognitive cost the most and would therefore benefit the most from making their smartphone absent.
And just to be absolutely clear about how this can affect us all, if your phone is present, then whether you have it face up or face down, on silent or switched off, there is still a ‘brain drain’ impact on your focus, attention and cognitive performance. In fact, this research suggests that only defined and protected periods of separation from your smartphone can help you perform better by reducing interruptions and by increasing available cognitive capacity.
‘One’s smartphone is more than just a phone, a camera, or a collection of apps. It is the one thing that connects everything – the hub of the connected world. The presence of one’s smartphone enables on-demand access to information, entertainment, social stimulation, and more. However, our research suggest that these benefits – and the dependence they engender – may come at a cognitive cost‘ (Ward et al).
So the evidence also suggest that interacting with your phone, receiving notifications that you don’t act upon and just having your phone present all carry cognitive costs. Yet surely (we all cry!) if we keep our smartphones separate from us while we want to focus, think and perform well, then we can just use them when we take a break. Surely that’s got to be ok for our brains (if you’ve read this far, I think you might have guessed what the answer will be!)?
Using Your Phone For a Break
We all know the importance of taking breaks from what we are doing. Our brains aren’t built for sustained attention so we take breaks to conserve our cognitive resources and to give our brains a chance to recover their power ready to perform and focus better once we return to our task. Breaks allow us to relax, to recharge emotional energy and allow our memory system to store what has already been done to free up more cognitive power for the next thing.
In a 2019 research study, Kang & Kurtzberg, compared breaks taken on a cell phone with breaks taken using other media (paper based or on a full computer screen or no break) in the middle of a cognitively demanding task. Their study found that,
‘In these results, an overall pattern appeared whereby those who stopped their tasks to take a break on their cell phones fared worse than any other type of break in terms of their subsequent performance, regardless of the main task medium used. Cell phone breaks resulted in the same levels of cognitive depletion as not taking any break at all‘ (Kang & Kurtzberg (2019), Reach for your cell phone at your own risk: The cognitive costs of media choice for breaks).
If you are using breaks to recharge your brain, then using your phone is unlikely to help you much. In fact, they found that using your phone during a break seemed to hinder future performance more than using a computer screen or a paper based task for your break.
‘Cell phones, because of their addictive nature and high levels of involvement in daily life, may now carry additional levels of magnetism and distraction that make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks. This finding supports the developing theory that people are more cognitively and emotionally attached to their phones than they are to other devices, including other electronic tools such as computers’.
Taking a break with your phone does not seem to serve as a true mental break from work tasks and would seem to unintentionally add to the cognitive load of your brain rather than relieving it. And so if you are using your break for a mental rest before cracking back on with your work, then it may be best to avoid your phone if you want to subsequently perform better.
Smartphones, Focus, Attention and Performance
All of this research might sound like a whole storm of bad news centred on upsettingly separating you from your beloved phone. And certainly smartphones offer all sorts of benefits and advantages that most of us take advantage of daily in some way and that would have been inconceivable a decade or so ago. In the palm of your hand you can have access to endless information on pretty much any topic, you can discover what is going on and where right now, you can buy and sell things, meet people, connect with people, play games, watch videos, listen to music and much more besides.
Yet as your dependence and emotional attachment to your smartphones grows, you need to also be aware that there are cognitive costs that go hand in hand with all these benefits. Our phones can distract and interrupt us, they can generate levels of anxiety and depression and impact on our sleep. You may find yourself overthinking about and over checking your phone, even in situations where it isn’t a great idea to do so.
And as the research I’ve described here evidences, our phones can impact on learning and information retention and negatively impact on your focus, attention and performance. Merely having your phone nearby without interacting with it has a cognitive impact even if it seems like you are still able to focus on what you are doing. And using your phone during a break is, cognitively speaking, the same as not taking a break at all and can impact in your performance.
All of which suggests that if you want to perform at your best mentally, then avoiding your phone during breaks and taking defined periods of separation from your smartphone, may be strategies well worth employing.
To your success,
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Arnold L. Glass & Mengxue Kang (2018): Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance, Educational Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046
Caird, J.K., Johnston, K.A., Willness, C.R., Asbridge, M. and Steel, P., 2014. A meta-analysis of the effects of texting on driving. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 71, pp.311-318.
Demirci, K., Akgönül, M. and Akpinar, A., 2015. Relationship of smartphone use severity with sleep quality, depression, and anxiety in university students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 4(2), pp.85-92.
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Kwon, M., Lee, J. Y., Won, W. Y., Park, J. W., Min, J. A., Hahn, C., … Kim, D. J. (2013). Development and validation of a smartphone addiction scale (SAS). PloS one, 8(2), e56936. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056936
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Strayer, D.L., Drews, F.A. and Johnston, W.A., 2003. Cell phone-induced failures of visual attention during simulated driving. Journal of experimental psychology: Applied, 9(1), p.23.
Ward, A.F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A. and Bos, M.W., 2017. Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), pp.140-154.