Your smartphone is not the enemy

11 Feb 2020

Smartphones are distracting and ruining everyone’s mental health. At least according to the general consensus among a multitude of media outlets. Now, Ph.D. research at Radboud has reached a different conclusion. ’When the results came in, I was really surprised.’

When Niklas Johannes started his Ph.D. research in 2015, almost everyone was equipped with a smartphone. Since the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, smartphones had been on the rise. Research surrounding them was, however, quite sparse. ‘The public discourse was full of heavy statements about the addictive nature of smartphones. I wanted to see if there was any scientific foundation to this.’ This Tuesday, Johannes’ Ph.D. defence will conclude his work at the Behavioural Science Institute. The conclusion? Smartphones are not half the diabolical machines they are often presented as.

Surprising results

One part of Johannes’ research focused on whether the presence of a smartphone could lead to distraction. And, more importantly, whether that distraction could diminish people’s performance. ‘At the beginning, I was convinced that getting distracted by your phone will have a negative influence on your performance,’ explains Johannes. The smartphone as the tempting distraction keeping society from stopping its own decline seems like a good narrative. Johannes’ research, however, deems it a fictional one. ‘When the results came in, I was really surprised.’

Niklas Johannes. Own archive

Results showed that while participants seemed to perceive the smartphones as highly distracting, that did not reflect in their performance. ’If you give someone a smartphone they will not perform significantly worse in a task than people who were not given one.’ These results go against the general consensus that smartphones were leaving a whole generation of teenagers unable to concentrate, with a diminished performance as a result.

Nevertheless, Johannes calls for caution. ’It would be presumptuous to draw definitive conclusions from our research alone.’ As per usual in science, there are no easy answers. And, more importantly, to answer anything at all, more studies are needed.

Smartphones aren’t special

Johannes still has some theories that could explain his findings. ‘I personally think that people who were initially prone to getting distracted are probably reaching for their smartphones for that.’ In a sense, just like they would reach for a TV remote or a magazine when facing boredom. According to the communication scientist, the smartphone is just the newest flashy technological invention drawing attention. Before that, this position had been, depending on the decade, occupied by the computer, television, radio, or telephone.

‘If you give someone a smartphone they will not perform significantly worse in a task than people who were not given one’

‘When the first penny dreadfuls (cheap horror stories, ed.) were published, people thought housewives would get corrupted. When the first computer games were on the market, we thought a whole generation of young men would become violent. Now, we laugh about that’, says Johannes. Whether we will laugh about a paranoia surrounding the use of smartphones is a question for the future. The present, as of now, needs more empirical investigation.

‘The research project of my dreams would be a longitudinal study that objectively measures peoples’ motivation behind social media use,’ says Johannes. For now, this project has to wait. The next step in Johannes’ career will be a postdoc position at the University of Glasgow — not directly related to his previous research surrounding smartphones.

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