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Do Smartphone Alerts Foster Attention Deficits

Do Smartphone Alerts Foster Attention Deficits?

A provocative new study on college students suggests the ubiquity of cell phones may be causing ADHD-like symptoms even among the general population.

The study is scheduled to be presented this week in San Jose, California, at the Human-Computer Interaction conference of the Association for Computing Machinery.

“Less than 10 years ago, Steve Jobs promised that smartphones ‘will change everything,'” said Dr. Kostadin Kushlev, a psychology research scientist at the University of Virginia, who led the study with colleagues at the University of British Columbia.

“And with the Internet in their pockets, people today are bombarded with notifications —¬†whether from email, text messaging, social media, or news apps — anywhere they go. We are seeking to better understand how this constant inflow of notifications influences our minds.”

Kushlev said that recent polls have shown that as many as 95 percent of smartphone users have used their phones during social gatherings; that seven in 10 people used their phones while working; and one in 10 admitted to checking their phones during sex.

Smartphone owners spend nearly two hours per day using their phones.

The researchers designed a two-week experimental study and showed that when students kept their phones on ring or vibrate, they reported more symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity than when they kept their phones on silent.

“We found the first experimental evidence that smartphone interruptions can cause greater inattention and hyperactivity — symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — even in people drawn from a nonclinical population,” Kushlev said.

Researchers followed 221 students at the University of British Columbia. The students were drawn from the general student population and were asked to maximize phone interruptions by keeping notification alerts on, and their phones within easy reach, for one week.

During another week participants were assigned to minimize phone interruptions by keeping alerts off and their phones away. At the end of each week, participants completed questionnaires assessing inattention and hyperactivity.

The results showed that the participants experienced significantly higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity when alerts were turned on.

The results suggest that even people who have not been diagnosed with ADHD may experience some of the disorder’s symptoms, including distraction, difficulty focusing and getting bored easily when trying to focus, fidgeting, having trouble sitting still, difficulty doing quiet tasks and activities, and restlessness.

“Smartphones may contribute to these symptoms by serving as a quick and easy source of distraction,” Kushlev said.

Kushlev emphasized, however, that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a complex biological and environmental etiology.

“Our findings suggest neither that smartphones can cause ADHD nor that reducing smartphone notifications can treat ADHD,” he said. “The findings simply suggest that our constant digital stimulation may be contributing to an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in modern society.”

The silver lining is that the problem can be turned off.

“Importantly, we found that people can reduce the harmful effects of overstimulation by smartphones simply by keeping their phones on silent and out of easy reach whenever possible, thus keeping notifications at bay,” Kushlev said.

Source: University of Virginia/EurekAlert
Checking phone in the shower photo by shutterstock.

Do Smartphone Alerts Foster Attention Deficits?

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Do Smartphone Alerts Foster Attention Deficits?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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