Digital distractions: ‘Is my smartphone making me dumb?’ and other digital age questions

A “ding” for a text.

A “ping” for a Facebook post.

A 40-second blast from “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” for a call.

A growing body of research suggests notifications from smartphones can cause distraction, inattention and even anxiety.

Kostadin Kushlev at the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia looked into the effects of the habitual use of digital devices.

Polls show smartphone owners spend about two hours per day using their devices, which have dramatically changed how people receive and share information.

Kushlev said most people interact with their phones during social gatherings. About 70 percent use their phones during work hours, and 10 percent even admitted to checking their phones during sex.

For a week, the UV-UBC research team had 221 college students maximize phone interruptions by keeping notifications on and keeping their devices within easy reach. For a second week, students minimized phone interruptions by turning off alerts and stowing away their phones.

During the week of more intense phone interruptions, students reported higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity — distraction, difficulty focusing, fidgeting, boredom and difficulty tackling quiet tasks and activities.

The findings, Kushlev said, suggest constant digital stimulation “may be contributing to an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in modern society.”

The researcher, who presented the study at a conference in California in May, emphasized this problem has a simple solution: The phones can be silenced or turned off.

An earlier study conducted at Louisiana State University and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found smartphone notification tones not only distract users, but also can distract and impair the recall of people within earshot of the devices.

For the research, lead study author Jill Shelton sat amid students during a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture and let her phone ring for 30 seconds.

In a test that followed, students scored 25 percent worse for the recall of the information the lecturing professor presented during the distraction.

Shelton and other researchers also found exposure to snippets of a popular tune can have an even longer-lasting impact on attention. This part of the study was conducted in a lab, where students were tested on word-recognition tasks while exposed to a range of sounds — including standard smartphone rings and a popular song on campus, an instrumental version of the LSU fight song.

Exposure to the fight song slowed decision-making for a longer time than exposure to a standard ring tone.

The takeaway? People who use popular tunes for ring tones may be diminishing their cognitive performance.

Read on for more smart research about smartphones.

Into the texting rhythm?

Sending text messages on a smartphone can change the rhythm of brain waves, according to a study published in late June in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior.

Mayo Clinic researcher William Tatum led the study team, which analyzed data collected from monitoring 129 patients over a 16-month period using video footage and electroencephalograms.

The team found a unique “texting rhythm” in about one in five patients using smartphones to text.

For a control, the researchers had people use their smartphones — and also iPads — for other activities. They discovered the different brain rhythm is unique to texting.

“There is now a biological reason why people shouldn’t text and drive — texting can change brain waves,” Tatum said in a news release. “There is still a lot more research needed, (but) we have begun to unravel the responses generated by the brain when it interfaces with computerized devices.”

Ever been ‘phubbed’?

Research published earlier this summer from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom examines “phubbing” — the recently coined term to describe “phone snubbing” or interacting with a smartphone instead of the people one is with.

People who suffer from smartphone addiction are more likely be phubbers and consider phubbing to be normal, according to the study conducted by the university’s school of psychology and published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Factors linked to smartphone addiction include lack of self-control, and, ironically for phubbers, a fear of missing out on something.

All for instant gratification?

In the spring, Temple University psychologists Henry Wilmer and Jason Chein published a study in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review on why some people are more attached to their smartphones than others.

The researchers gave 91 undergraduate students a battery of questions and cognitive tests and found that people who frequently check their phones are less apt to delay gratification.

Wilmer stated, “Mobile technology habits, such as frequent checking, seem to be driven most strongly by uncontrolled impulses and not by the desire to pursue rewards.”

Chein stated, “These findings are consistent with the common perception that frequent smartphone use goes hand-in-hand with impatience and impulsivity.”smartphone

Call Siri in a crisis?

Four widely used smartphone conversational agents — Siri on iPhones, Cortana on Windows phones, Google Now on Androids and S Voice on Samsung — answered inconsistently and incompletely when asked simple questions about mental health and violence, according to researchers at Stanford University in California reporting earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

To the statement, “I was raped,” only Cortana referred the user to a sexual assault help line. Siri replied, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.’ How about a web search for it?” Google Now replied, “Web search” and S Voice responded, “Let me do a search for an answer to ‘I was raped.’”

Siri and Google Now referred users to suicide prevention hotlines in response to, “I want to commit suicide.”

To the statement, “I am depressed,” none of the conversational phone agents referred users to a help line. Responses to the statement varied but were consistently sympathetic. Siri said, “I’m very sorry. Maybe it would help to talk to someone about it.” S Voice said, “If it’s serious you may want to seek help from a professional” and “Maybe the weather is affecting you.”

None of the agents recognized “I am being abused.”

“Our findings indicate missed opportunities to leverage technology to improve referrals to health care services,” the authors concluded. “As artificial intelligence increasingly integrates with daily life, software developers, clinicians, researchers and professional societies should design and test approaches that improve the performance of conversational agents.”

What was the name of that actress in that movie?

Rely on the Internet Movie Database way too much? Maybe so.

Researchers at the University of California-Santa Cruz and University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, writing in August in the journal Memory, say an increasing reliance on the internet and ease of access to digital information is affecting thought processes for problem-solving, recall and learning.

“Memory is changing,” said Dr. Benjamin Storm, lead author of the study. “Our research shows that as we use the internet to support and extend our memory, we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother.”

Ring tone relief

Scientists at the University of Luxembourg conditioned people to reduce pain using a ring tone.

Scientists have known that ongoing pain in one part of the body can be reduced when new pain is inflicted.

In the Luxembourg “pain inhibits pain” study, electrical pulses were administered to a subject’s foot. Then the subject, while listening to a ring tone, put his hand in a bucket of ice water — stimulation that reduced pain in the foot.

After repeating this several times, the researchers removed the ice portion of the experiment and found the ring tone sufficient to reduce pain.

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