Keep that Phone Out of Reach

The device that connects you makes you distant

A few months ago I wrote a piece on the importance of taking a break from the internet regularly (you can read it here), in order to better concentrate on things that matter more than cute cats and epic fails. The internet now lives in our phones, through apps, constantly ‘notifying’ us when our friends like a video of cute cats, or epic fails.

If your phone is within reach, within earshot, or in your eyeline, it will distract you from tasks you are carrying out, or important things someone may be saying to you, even if you’re not actually using it. This is suggested in a new paper in the journal Social Psychology. It studies the results of an experiment in which students in two separate economics classes were given two versions of attention-testing tasks — one relatively easy, the other more taxing.

For both, participants were presented with a page of 20 rows of single digit numbers singly spaced. The less challenging task was a simple “digit cancellation” task. Each row of digits was preceded by a “target number” that the subject was to circle and then proceed to cross off each occurrence of the number appearing in that row; then on to the next row with a different target number (e.g., 2: 382-162-75 …). The more challenging task was an “additive cancellation” task. Again, each row of digits was preceded by a “target number” that the subject was to circle and then proceed to cross off any two adjacent numbers that “added up” to their target number (e.g., 3: 32-1-6183-0-5…).

In one of the groups, the participants kept their phones on their desks while they completed the cancellation tasks – being advised to keep them handy because one of the tasks would ask questions about the model of smartphone they used. In the other group the phones were placed out of sight and reach. The study authors report that the participants who couldn’t see, hear or touch their phones performed better on both tasks, but in particular the more complicated one, getting an average of 26 correct answers, compared to the other group’s average of 21.

On a broader note, recent research has also shown that the presence of a smartphone — again, even if it’s not being used or touched — weakens our ability to connect with other people, particularly when we’re trying to discuss something important and meaningful.

Now, I don’t think anyone would argue that having any sort of distraction in the vicinity of two people trying to have a meaningful discussion would hinder that interaction. What I find interesting with this study is that the phone can be completely dormant, and still significantly affect the owner’s concentration.

What do we do with this information? It’s hard to say. But I do believe that we need to consciously detach ourselves from technology for periods of each day. Smartphone use may not cause mental health problems, but I’m certain that a partner suffering from depression or anxiety will not experience positive effects by connecting with a significant other who is distracted.