COLUMN: Your smartphone distracts you simply by being there

As if student life was not already difficult enough, a new distraction has come up over the last 10 years that has nearly become an addiction: the smartphone.

To be clear, smartphones are beneficial when they’re used in the right way, particularly when it comes to communicating and finding relevant information quickly. And with 92 percent of young Americans, ages 18 to 35, now owning one, the “black mirror" isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

However, because of our umbilical attachment to our smartphones, they are actually interfering with our study time. In particular, a 2017 paper by the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated a remarkable result: The mere presence of your smartphone is enough to cause a significant decrease in your cognitive performance — “brain drain.”

Here’s how the experiment played out: subjects performed cognitively demanding tasks while keeping their smartphones either on their desk, in their bag, pocket or out of sight in a different room. Additionally, the smartphones were placed on silent so the experiment would measure only the effect of their presence and not the notifications and buzzes that usually come with them.

The results showed that the subjects who kept their smartphones out of the room outperformed the subjects who kept their smartphones on their desk, and also did somewhat better than the subjects who kept them in their pocket or bag. Not only that, but those who considered themselves very dependent on their phones did even worse on the tasks than those who felt less dependent, but this was only when the phone was in the room with them.

In other words, when you have your smartphone — regardless of whether it is on or off, face up or face down, visible or tucked away — it unconsciously impairs your cognitive performance. The decline in performance is a result of the unconscious brain actively inhibiting us from thinking about our smartphone, which uses up cognitive resources and leaves less available for the task at hand. And if you feel more dependent on your smartphone, your brain will have to work harder still.

This is relevant to students in particular, because studying is nothing but a cognitively demanding task – you absorb information, manipulate it in your head and try to make sense of it. The concentration that studying requires is vulnerable to both conscious and unconscious distractions, especially our smartphones. Moreover, it seems the solution is not as simple as turning the phone off or putting it in your backpack, because the unconscious brain still knows it is accessible and will continue spending energy on it as a result.

To fix this, ideally you should separate yourself from the phone altogether. That is, if you do homework at home, put it in a different room, and if you go out to study, leave your phone behind.

Admittedly, it is somewhat unrealistic to ask someone to spend any amount of time outside of the house without their smartphone. After all, we at least want to be available on the off-chance that somebody urgently needs to contact us, so maybe leaving the phone at home is not the most practical answer.

Nevertheless, we can find middle ground. When you’re studying, silence your phone and keep it as far from you as possible. If you hide it in your backpack, the phone will still be something of a distraction, but not nearly as much as if it is there on your desk glaring at you for company. Periodically, say, every hour, you can take your phone out to check if anything has come up, and once you’re through, you can put it away again and study on.

New iPhone features even allow you to track your screen time and set down time that doesn't allow you to access some of your apps.

The bigger point here is that science can provide valuable input on how to manage your study habits. Papers have been written on how studying is influenced by distraction, memorization, sleep, time of day, location and a range of other factors — these papers can help you figure out how to study best. So take some time to read the literature about it, and see how you can apply those ideas to yourself.

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