Differences in being distracted: who gets most distracted by cell phones?

What’s more annoying than cell phones during a concert? People filming can be a burden, but nothing worse than a ringtone during a silent piece of music. Researchers now have verified that the mere presence of a cell phone or smartphone can adversely affect our cognitive performance, particularly among infrequent internet users and again it has input for mobile devices in education…

From the press release:

As a part of their research, Associate Professor Jun-ichiro Kawahara of Hokkaido University’s Graduate School of Letters and Motohiro Ito of Chukyo University (a special research student at Hokkaido University’ Graduate School of Letters) measured the effect of mobile phones on the ability to pay attention of 40 undergraduate students.

The participants were split into two groups: a “mobile-phone conditions” group and a “control conditions” group. For the former, the researchers placed a mobile phone (that did not belong to the participant being tested) next to a computer monitor, asked the participant to search for a target character amongst other characters that appeared on the monitor screen, and then measured the time it took to search for the target character. For the latter group, a memo pad of the same size as the phone was placed by the monitor, and the same experiment was conducted. Thereafter, participants were asked about how frequently they use and how attached they are to the internet.

According to the experiment’s results, “mobile-phone conditions” participants took longer to find the target character than the control group, indicating that participants were automatically distracted by the presence of the phone, impairing cognitive performance. This effect was more pronounced in people who infrequently use the internet. On the other hand, it was found that heavy users were not distracted by the phone and rather more efficient to notice the target when it appeared on the side of the monitor where the mobile phone was placed. These results suggest that the influence of a mobile phone on the examinee’s cognitive performance differed depending on the degree of their internet usage.

The researchers hypothesize that people are automatically drawn to the presence of a mobile phone, and there are individual differences in how one attempts to ignore it. In conclusion, Kawahara notes “The mere presence of a mobile phone was a distraction among infrequent internet users. However, among frequent internet users, the device might have served as a spatial cue from which their visual system starts searching the target.”

Abstract of the study:

Recent studies suggest that the “mere presence” of a mobile phone impairs social interactions and neuropsychological test performance. The present study examined whether the presence of a mobile phone causes spatial bias toward the device during a visual search task. Participants identified a target among spatially distributed non-targets. We manipulated three factors: device presence (mobile phone or notepad), target congruency (congruent or incongruent), and attentional load (set size 8 or 24). A mobile phone (or a notepad in the control condition) was placed on the left side of the computer screen. Participants also completed a questionnaire to measure Internet usage and attachment. Participants with high scores on the questionnaire rapidly identified the target at the congruent (same side as the phone) location, but the mere presence effect did not occur in this condition. In contrast, participants with low scores on the questionnaire demonstrated the mere presence effect, but no spatial bias was observed. These results suggest that the mere presence effect can be modulated by individual differences in the degree to which a device is appealing.

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