Smartphone use and daily cognitive failures


As a society, we have come to rely on smartphones to do far more than make a telephone call. However, concern is growing over the potential negative consequences of their over-use, such as distraction, forgetfulness and cognitive laziness.


Led by psychologist Dr Andree Hartanto, researchers from Singapore Management University tracked how long students spent checking their smartphones and using different applications, and how this affected their cognitive functioning.


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Image credit: Pixabay / Firmbee





Hello and welcome to ResearchPod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode we look at the work of a team of researchers from Singapore Management University who are studying whether frequent smartphone use leads to daily cognitive failures. Led by psychologist Dr Andree Hartanto, their latest research is based on a study of students in Singapore who were objectively tracked on how long they spent checking their smartphones and using different applications, and how this affected their cognitive functioning tracked using daily diary.



It’s estimated that the number of smartphone users worldwide will soon exceed 4.5 billion, and the figure is set to expand even further. Smartphone penetration is estimated at 68% of the population in China – the country with the most users worldwide. Penetration is even greater in the United States, where it’s thought more than 82% of people regularly use a smartphone.


Since smartphones hit the market in 1994, we’ve come to rely on mobile technologies to do far more than make a telephone call. As anyone who loses their smartphone knows, they run our lives. In Dr Hartanto’s words, smartphones are a ‘desirable and immersive tool that affords social, informational, and leisure conveniences, free from locational restrictions’.


But there’s growing concern about the potential negative consequences of smartphone over-use, including that it can lead to cognitive overload and impairment. For example, it’s suggested that smartphones distract us from the task at hand, causing us to lose control of our attention. It’s also argued that apps such as diaries, calendars and calculators, as well as internet portals, cause forgetfulness and cognitive laziness because they stop us thinking for ourselves. For example, research shows that many people no longer devote mental effort to memorizing contact data or doing simple calculations, which can diminish their information retention and numerical processing skills.


Although more and more psychologists are studying the relationship between frequent smartphone use and cognitive failures, it’s a complex subject and there are gaps in the research.


Some studies have looked at the issue at a single timepoint in a lab setting, failing to account for how smartphone use affects cognitive functioning in real-life situations. Other studies are self-reporting and may be unreliable, for example, because respondents are open to bias and memory lapses. Alternatively, research has either failed to take account of demographic variables, or only focused on total screen time, meaning that it can’t offer insights into different types of smartphone use.



Dr Hartanto’s study aims to fill these research gaps by taking a seven-day, daily diary approach to probe whether smartphone use is linked to cognitive failures in the course of users’ routine activities. Importantly, in addition to total screen time, the researchers tracked the different smartphone apps they used, whether their cognition was affected, and how usage made them feel.  By focusing on within-person effects, where individuals assess their performance against their own baseline rather than others, this approach effectively rules out the influence of stable personal and environmental factors, ensuring that the observed cognitive changes are more directly attributed to smartphone use.


Cognitive failures tested in the study include: memory lapses, for example if someone forgets a turning while driving a familiar route; distractions, such as starting one activity and being distracted by another; and blunders, like saying something you didn’t mean to say. The research team expected to find that higher levels of screen time and smartphone checking would each predict a higher incidence of cognitive failures at within-person level.



The research involved 181 university students in Singapore. The students were recruited as part of a larger scale survey into daily stressors, personal well-being, and cognitive failure. An initial baseline study collected demographic data such as age, gender, annual household income, and socio-economic status. And to ensure objective and comparable data-tracking, participants all used iPhones, which provided the daily data required for the survey.


In addition to daily screen time, students’ time spent on different applications during the day were objectively tracked. The apps were broken down into six categories. These included: social, for example Facebook or Telegram; entertainment and games like Netflix or Candy Crush; and tools such as calculators or cameras. The other categories comprised: spending, such as use of Amazon or American Express; health, for example consulting Health Bug; and ‘other’, which included using Safari to search the internet.


Recognised psychological tests were used to assess students’ cognitive failures and stressors.

Cognitive failure was assessed by participants being asked to respond on a scale from ‘never’ to ‘sometimes’ to a series of statements about the occurrence of things such as: leaving tasks unfinished because of distractionsnot finding the right word; or whether their mind wandered. In addition, participants were asked whether they experienced any one of seven types of recognised stressors during the day. These included discrimination, work/education stressors, network stressors, arguments, avoided arguments, stressors at home, and ‘others’.  The students also had to record how they felt according to 13 positive and negative moods, for example, cheerful, enthusiastic, lonely or afraid.



Multi-level modelling was used to analyse the survey results to see whether indicators such as smartphone checking, total daily screen time, and screen time spent on different apps predicted daily cognitive failures.


In line with expectations, researchers found that, even after controlling for variables such as demographics, participants who engaged in more smartphone checking were more likely to experience cognitive failures. The findings suggest that smartphone checking is a distracting behaviour that, in line with resource theory, adds to an individual’s cognitive load. Developed by psychologists James Head and William Helton, resource theory holds that people have limited but replenishable mental resources to carry out tasks which compete for their cognitive attention. Attention failures are the result of cognitive overload rather than, for example, laziness or ignorance.


Contrary to other studies, the results of Dr Hartanto’s new research indicate that participants’ total smartphone screen time does not predict cognitive failures. In addition, using functions such as social- and tools-related apps may even benefit cognitive functioning. Dr Hartanto suggests this may be because some apps such as calculators and route planners can ease people’s cognitive load and free-up mental capacity for other tasks.


Therefore it’s important to look at how smartphone functions are used, because in other situations social- and tools-related apps were found to have positive benefits. For example, the results suggest that cognitive failures were more likely to occur on days when users spent less time on these functions, rather than on other categories such as spending, health, entertainment and games.


Additional, multilevel analysis drilled down further into the kind of cognitive failures associated with the different types of smartphone use. The results suggest that distractions were more associated with total time spent on screen, as well as time spent on social- and tools-related apps. Blunders were mostly associated with frequent smartphone checking. The multilevel analysis also ruled out stressors exposure, and how participants felt when using their smartphones, as potential confounders



Dr Hartanto’s study is based on a small sample of young adult student iPhone users in Singapore.


Whether its findings are generally applicable can only be determined by conducting similar studies in different parts of the world, and with different age groups, as well as with users of other smartphone operating systems.


Despite its size, the research has many strengths. These include its daily diary design, detailed measures of smartphone use, and multi-level modelling. The findings confirm that smartphone checking is associated with daily cognitive failures, and is a better predictor of failures than total screen time. The study also provides insights into the negative and positive impacts that different smartphone functions have on daily cognitive failures. Above all, the research reveals the complexity of the relationship between smartphone use and cognition.


In today’s super-connected world, smartphones are a vital part of everyday life. But much as we love their benefits, the downsides can be serious. We need to understand more about cognitive failures because they can in turn lead to negative outcomes such as stress, burnout, and even accidents. This has serious implications, especially if, for example, we’re driving, studying, using complex equipment, or need close concentration on a task. The message is clear and simple. Sometimes we just have to switch off.


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to ResearchPod for more of the latest science and ideas. See you again soon.

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