A particular type of smartphone use is linked to everyday inattention

New research indicates that the absent-minded use of smartphones — rather than the general use of a smartphone per se — is linked to mind-wandering and a lack of attention. The study has been published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

“I’m generally interested in people’s everyday experience of attention, and in particular, their inattentiveness,” said study author Jeremy Marty-Dugas of the University of Waterloo.

“Given the potential for smartphones to impact our behaviour (they’re in our pockets almost all the time!), I was interested in seeing how everyday inattention would relate to smartphone use. While reviewing the literature and doing some thinking, it seemed apparent to us that absent-minded smartphone use was something unique and worth investigating.”

Previous research has found that smartphone use is associated with inattention. Frequent phone interruptions have also been shown to made people less attentive and more hyperactive.

But the new research — a study of 185 undergraduates and a replication with 250 participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — suggests that how a person engages with their smartphones is an important factor in the relationship between smartphone use and inattention.

People who frequently checked their phone without realizing why they did it were also more likely to report rushing through other activities without being attentive to them. Absent-minded smartphone use was also associated with attention-related errors and mind-wandering.

“The key thing for people to note is that absent-minded smartphone use — behaviours such as repeated checking, or aimless scrolling, or using your phone without a specific purpose — is what’s linked to more inattention in your daily life in general,” Marty-Dugas told PsyPost.

“Based on our results it seems like absent-minded smartphone use in particular is what drives the relationship between smartphone use and inattention more broadly. It’s possible people would benefit from reducing this behaviour and trying to use their phones in a more deliberate, goal-driven way.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“The study is correlational in nature, so it doesn’t allow us to draw causal inferences. It could be that using your smartphone absentmindedly makes you more inattentive in other areas of your life, but it’s also possible that people who are already highly inattentive wind up using their smartphone inattentively as well,” Marty-Dugas explained.

“We’ll need to run other studies to conclusively say whether absent-minded smartphone use causes more inattention elsewhere. One way to test this would be to try and reduce absent-minded use via some kind of intervention, and see whether this leads to improvements in sustained attention ability.”

“The reason I think this is important work is because we’ve drawn attention to, and actually started to measure, the experience of absent-minded smartphone use,” Marty-Dugas added. “This wasn’t something people were previously asking about, and our hope is that reading about our research will make other researchers, as well as members of the public, think about the impacts of smartphones in a more nuanced way.”

“It could be interesting to consider other ways to measure absent-minded smartphone use, as well as how things like phone design could promote or reduce this sort of behaviour.

The study, “The relation between smartphone use and everyday inattention“, was authored by Jeremy Marty-Dugas, Brandon C. W. Ralph, Jonathan M. Oakman, and Daniel Smilek.