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Can Smartphones Make Us More Absent-Minded?

New research suggests that smartphone use can influence attention span.

Do you have a smartphone? Chances are you do.

According to survey results, an estimated 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. That represents a spectacular jump from 2011, when only 35 percent reported owning them. And the numbers are even higher among 18 to 29-year-olds with 92 percent owning at least one phone.

As you can see from these statistics alone, smartphones are already a major part of 21st century life. Along with a way of staying in touch with friends and family members, smartphones can used to take and share photographs, surf the Internet, navigate using GPS, listening to music, playing videos, etc.

But for all the advantages that smartphones can provide, they have a dark side as well. Certainly, they can have a negative impact for any task requiring undivided attention, including driving. Not only are 27 percent of all automobile accidents believed to result from talking or texting while driving, but smartphone use has also been implicated in several recent rail disasters as well. In fact, smartphone use while driving is often as detrimental as impaired driving.

With smartphone use continuing to pervade modern life, we are seeing even more examples of how they can interfere with important tasks. Not only have surgeons admitted to using their phones while carrying out delicate surgical procedures but research has also demonstrated that students who use their phones to talk or text during class tend to do more poorly than students who don't. Ringing phones are also a constant irritation during lectures and other public events and many public places have a smartphone ban as a result.

In recent years, numerous research studies have reported on the potential impact of smartphone use on different aspects of cognitive functioning, particularly in terms of attention span. Much of this research focuses on the kind of multitasking seen in people using smartphones and other digital devices. For example, a recent brain imaging study showed that heavy multitaskers have less gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex than people who use digital media less frequently.

Results like these, while intriguing, also bring up a vexing question about cause and effect: Does smartphone use have a detrimental impact on brain development or are people who already have limited attention spans more likely to rely on their smartphones? For that matter, how does smartphone use relate to the kind of simple absentmindedness that everyone experiences once in a while?

To answer these questions, a new research article in the Journal of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice takes a comprehensive look at smartphone use and everyday attention lapses. A team of researchers led by Jeremy Marty-Dugas of the University of Waterloo carried out two studies looking at smartphone multitasking and how is related to inattention.

Both studies used specially designed questionnaires measuring general smartphone use, i.e. how frequently people used smartphones to send or receive messages, use social media, manage their schedules, etc., as well as absent-minded smartphone use, i.e., using smartphones without a specific goal in mind. This kind of absent-minded smartphone use is especially important to consider since many smartphone users report checking their phones without even realizing it or using their smartphones as a way of passing time rather than to achieve something specific. By including this kind of smartphone use, Marty-Dugas and his colleagues wanted to see if it might lead to users becoming more absent-minded in general.

The first of these two studies involved a sample of 185 undergraduates (100 males, 85 females) ranging in age from 18 to 33 years old. Participants were asked to complete two specialized questionnaires: The first questionnaire measured general smartphone use such as how often they used their phones to check social media and answer phone or text messages. The second questionnaire focused on absent-minded use with items such as: "How often do you find yourself checking your phone without realizing why you did it?” and “How often do you lose track of
time while using your phone?” Participants also completed a research questionnaire measuring attention lapses with items such as "I rush through activities without being really attentive to them” as well as two scales measuring unintentional and deliberate mind-wandering. All of these questionnaires were presented online as part of a broader test battery to prevent participants from knowing the true purpose of the study.

Results showed that people who use smartphones frequently were also much more likely to use their phones in an absent-minded fashion. Also, while general and absent-minded smartphone use were both strongly correlated with the various measures of inattention used in the study, absent-minded smartphone use seemed especially likely to lead to attention problems in everyday life. This includes spontaneous mind-wandering and various errors linked to not paying attention.

Still, these results were based exclusively on participants who were college-aged undergraduates. To see whether the same findings would occur in a much more general population, a second study was carried out using a sample of 250 adults recruited using Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. Along with being almost evenly divided between males and females, the participants ranged in age from 18 to 72. When questioned about their smartphone use, virtually all participants reported having a smartphone for at least a year.

In the second study, participants completed the same questionnaires as in the first study as well as specialized items measuring whether they had been paying attention when completing the questionnaires. Results for the second study were basically the same as for the first study in showing that frequent smartphone use, especially absent-minded smartphone use, was strongly correlated with different measures of inattention.

But what do these results mean for regular smartphone users? Are people who are naturally absent-minded more likely to use their smartphones absent-mindedly? Or does absent-minded smartphone use lead people to become more absent-minded in their daily lives?

Considering how universal digital devices are becoming, it's hardly surprising that researchers have been taking a closer look at how they may be affecting they way we think. For example, a recent book by Nicholas Carr suggests that access to the Internet may be making us mentally lazier than we were in the pre-Internet era; Other recent studies looking at media multitasking suggest that it may lead to poorer executive functioning overall.

With that in mind, it doesn't seem so implausible to think that using digital devices can lead to people becoming more absent-minded in general. Still, as Marty-Dugas and his co-authors point out in their conclusion, whether or not smartphones can affect attention largely depends on how we use them. For concrete tasks such as staying in touch or keeping ourselves informed about the world around us, smartphones are definitely irreplaceable. When we use them as time-wasters, however, things become very different.

So pay attention to how you are using that smartphone. It may be more important than you think.


Marty-Dugas, J., Ralph, B. C. W., Oakman, J. M., & Smilek, D. (2017, September 14). The Relation Between Smartphone Use and Everyday Inattention. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Advance online publication.

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