Study: Smartphones distract, even when not in use

Your smartphone may be using your brainpower even when you’re not on it, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin concluded this spring.

That could be an important discovery for the 77 percent of Americans who own a smartphone and who tap, click or swipe on it an average of 85 times each day.

The study, titled, “Brain Drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity,” describes two experiments done that the researchers said appear to support the title’s conclusion.

“These cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence,” the study said, noting that 91 percent of users said they “never leave home without their phones and 46 percent say they couldn’t live without them.”

The study examined a concept called “automatic attention,” which is the human ability to “make the most of their limited cognitive capacity” by paying attention to certain things without them having to constantly remember to do them. In other words, we do them without specifically thinking about them.

This is helpful in many situations, such as riding a bicycle; someone who has been riding for long enough no longer thinks about how to balance, steer and brake.

And, the study said, smartphones have the same effect. “Prior research provides ample evidence that individuals spontaneously attend to their phones at inopportune times and that this digital distraction adversely affects both performance and enjoyment,” the study said.

All of this comes as no surprise to Yavapai College professor of psychology and sociology Mark Shelley, who conducted similar research.

“I interviewed 636 students at Yavapai College, ranging from age 14 to 80,” he said, “and I’m basically finding the same thing.”

The Texas study was intended to find out just how much attention was tied up with users’ phones, and whether it was only when people were actively using them or all the time. The researchers tested 548 smartphone users over two weeks, having them put the devices in one of three places: a desk, in their pocket or bag, or in another room, and all were told to set it to silent mode.

They were then given standardized scientific tests to measure attention and thinking ability. “The results of (the) experiment support the proposition that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity, even when it is not in use,” the study reported, and that people did better when their phone was in the other room.

Shelley said he found that age made very little difference, and that two out of three people admitted some level of addiction to their technology, although he concluded that “two out of three is the best case scenario,” and that more people exhibited signs of addiction than actually admitted to it.

“What we’re doing is, we’re paying attention to everything, but we’re not paying full attention to anything,” he said.