Many people keep smartphones on them constantly. Whether it’s to check social media, email, look up something, or take pictures during special events, or just during every day life. That’s just active interaction with smartphones. There’s also passive interaction, where a nearby smartphone will alert you of emails, texts, phone calls or someone liking something on one of your social media accounts. Obviously interacting with a smartphone actively is going to be distracting, but what about when it’s just sitting there? Or even when it’s turned off or down?
Recent research attempts to discern whether a nearby smartphone can affect focus and concentration. In one example, two lab experiments were conducted on 800 people. The tests were designed to measure how people solve problems and reason. The performance level was impacted by how well each person could concentrate and focus on the task. The smartphone factor came in by having each person either put their phone in a pocket or bag, leave them outside the room, or put them face down on the desk in front of them. All phones had sound and vibrate alerts turned off.
The results of this experiment showed that people who left their phones completely outside of the test room did the best on the various problems. Those who put their phones in their pockets or bags were next. The worst performing group were those who had their phones on the desks face down in front of them. Even when the phones were turned off, those who had the phones in front of them did worse on the tests. The effects of a nearby smartphone were roughly equivalent to the test subject lacking sleep.
The interesting part of this experiment is that smartphones have the ability to be distracting even when they’re not on or actively alerting. Simply their presence nearby is enough to provide a distraction for many people.
So why do smartphones ruin your ability to concentrate even when you aren’t interacting with them? The answer lies in cognitive psychology. People are more likely to subconsciously pay attention to things that are valuable and used often. Smartphones not only tend to be quite expensive, but most people use them on a regular basis every single day. It’s the same reason that a person will be distracted by hearing their own name. Smartphones have a subconscious pull, even when they’re off, because people are used to hearing notifications and attending to them.
Research data also shows that this distracting element of smartphones is stronger in people who have more of a connection to their phone, such as those who say that they wouldn’t be able to give up their phone for a day. This has major implications for kids, with the potential for higher level learning happening if students are required to leave their phones out of the classroom.
Obviously smartphones have many important uses, but when you really want to focus on something, it may be a good idea to put the smartphone in another room. Research suggests that having classes and meetings without phones can help people be more creative and engaged in what’s being discussed.
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