Mental & Emotional Health

Another Bad Thing About Texting

Any signal from a cell phone – even a little “ding” that indicates a text – can weaken your ability to focus on a task, according to a new Florida State University study.

In fact, the signal from a phone is comparable to the effects seen when people are actively using their own phone.

“The level of how much it affected the task at hand was really shocking,” said Courtney Yehnert, an FSU research coordinator who worked on the study as an undergraduate student before graduating in 2014.

The study, “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Notification,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. This is the first study to examine the effect of cell phone notifications on performance.

“Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task.”

According to a news release from the university, the findings are significant because many public information campaigns intended to deter problematic cell phone use — while driving, for example —emphasize waiting to respond to messages and calls. However, even waiting may take a toll on attention, the researchers say. Even remembering to perform some action in the future is sufficient to disrupt performance on an unrelated concurrent task.

To conduct the study, the researchers compared the performance of participants on an attention-demanding computer task, which was divided into two parts. In the first part, participants were asked simply to complete the task. During the second part, although they were not aware of it, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: call, text or no notification. Automated calls and texts were then sent to the personal phones of participants in the first two groups without their knowledge that the notifications were coming from the researchers.

Overall, the researchers found, participants who received notifications made substantially more mistakes on the computer task than those who didn’t. In fact, the increase in the probability of making a mistake was more than three times greater for those who received notifications. Those who received phone call notifications fared worse on the task than those who received a text alert.

The researchers then compared their results to the findings of other studies that explored the impact that actually using a cell phone had on attention performance. They found their results were similar, suggesting that receiving a notification but not responding is as distracting as actually answering the phone or replying to a text.

The study didn’t look at driving, but the researchers said the results are relevant to the problem of distracted driving.

They said, though, that the safest bet when driving is to turn off your cell phone and put it away.

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