Your Smartphone Hijacks your Attention … Even When It is Off

Attention on smartphone

Taking Stock: Smartphone Distraction has Real Life Impacts

Multiple studies are showing that the mere presence of a smartphone makes everything that happens around it more superficial. Your phone divides your attention every moment it is with you.

Apparently, your mind gives the phone priority attention. That means, your phone is first in line for your focus. This happens outside of awareness. Your attention has one eye on the phone, the other on everything else. You function is a state of perpetual distraction. Does this sound familiar?

Your phone is why your concentration is shot

Imagine this:

Your child has been trying to find the courage to tell you about a bully at school who will be waiting for them. They just begin to speak up when your phone buzzes. So you check to see who wants you. That is what people do…

You don’t even notice when your kid walks away…

When you are engaged with your phone, you are not present for the people in your life who are counting on you.

Your device captures your attention without your awareness because of the addictive properties that have been engineered into it.

It is called persuasive design and it makes money for Big Tech.

It isn’t your fault… at all. But you should consider bringing your phone habit into conscious awareness.

The Message You Send when Phubbing

And when you drop what your doing to give privileged attention to your phone, (as people do…), you are sending the message that your loved ones are not as important as the phone.

How many times did that happen yesterday?

How would your partner or kids answer?

Hard Truth

When you are caught up with your phone, you can’t show up in your life. The phone grabs and holds you. It is the strangest thing … but true.

Is that what you want for your life?

Proper Place for Your Phone?

The good news is that you can choose what you want from life. And you can deliberately choose the importance you want to give your phone.

You choose the role or place it has in your everyday life.

Think…what do you want that place to be?

When Your Phone is in its rightful place… (you can give it more time or less… your choice);  there is room in your life for your Real Life people, … the ones you love.

With digital media properly managed in your life, you’ll notice:

1. Relationships are deeper.

Connecting with a person in real time, takes time, care and attention. If you have one eye on your phone, every exchange is superficial. You can’t connect.
Superficial may be easier but it does not give back much. Real is much more rewarding.

2. More time in real time…

to do those important things that build the best that life offers. On your phone you can lose minutes/ hours / days, before you know it. For what?

3. Improved concentration.

If your smartphone is with you, your attention is divided, even if it’s off.
Your concentration is fractured. Can you relate? Have you noticed you are more distractible?

Being able to pay attention is sooo important, because when you can focus, you can savor life’s blessings.

What Scholars Say about  Smartphone Impacts

I was totally surprised when I looked at the scholarship around this. Smartphones have huge impact on people’s ability to think… Persuasive design seem to be changing:

  • when/ if and how we remember,
  • whether we can sustain deep thinking, or
  • whether we can stay on task…

Nick Carr wrote extensively about this in The Shallows. I totally see more blog posts about smart phones and unintended effects in my future.

Today the subject is really curious. Bizarre even. I know of no other object that has the power to divide our attention like the smartphone. It pulls us in… grabbing our attention by its mere presence.

Your Smartphone Sucks Your Brain Power… even when it is OFF.

Dr. Adrian Ward was lead researcher for a study called Brain Drain, out of University of Texas (Austin). It examined whether the availability of a person’s smartphone changed their ability to perform a task demanding concentration and the capacity to think.

Participants (800 people), were divided into three groups: cell phone on the desk, cell phone in the room, and cell phone in another room. All cell phones were completely off.

Then the subjects were asked to perform a series of demanding tasks that measured their thought processes.

The people whose phones were not available performed significantly better than those people whose phone was in the room or on the desk.

The closer the phone the worse the performance.

The researchers say the mere presence of a smartphone reduces a person’s available brain power, even when the phone is off. Read the full study.

A Smartphone on the Dinner Table Kills Good Conversation

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that when people text at the table the quality of interpersonal communication deteriorates, but did you know that just having a phone sitting on the table kills the conversation? Even when it is off? How weird it that? … study after study says so.

In the study, The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices, Dr S Masri, et al of Virginia Tech observed a number of groups of two at a coffee shop, and then interviewed them.

Masri found that if participants had a phone show up during the 10 minute conversation, either on the table or in a hand, the participants reported a poorer quality conversation than those convos that had no phone around. Less fulfilling and not so caring… (lower empathetic concern). Just as in the Texas study, Masri found the presence of the phone consistently changed the quality of the interaction.

They believe that this is because we pay special attention to the smartphone.

Scholars suggest the phone has a constant claim on our unconscious attention…

Dr. Masri and others think we give it symbolic meaning. In our minds, our phone, they say, represents our entire relational network to us, like its a symbol of the group where we belong, or something.

Wow. I mean, … no wonder you feel like you have to check it.

I don’t know how you would test the argument but it is interesting. It may even be right… because how else can you explain why a technological device would be given more emotional weight than loved ones in the flesh?

What This Means for Your Daily Life

We are hyper watchful toward our phones, so our focus is perpetually divided. In the age of the smartphone we seldom give our full attention to anyone or anything, … especially if the phone is present.

This shows up in job performance studies that report how often people are pulled out of workflow… Some studies track eye movements checking notification icons. Study after study say our focus is fractured.

What Does This Mean for Our Quality of Life and Relationships?

I think the most profound impacts are going to show in the quality of interpersonal relationships where authentic connectedness defines the role, like with a partner or parent, offspring or friend.

If you and I do not consciously choose to favor flesh and blood people over network contacts, ON PURPOSE…, our quality of life will suffer as relationships become more shallow and less connected.

Apparently the phone has the power to do that. Unless we grab real life instead. On Purpose.

Need I point out that your phone is not your connections?

You need to bring awareness of this fact into your conscious thought.

The phone is a tool, …
not your network of loved ones.

Smartphone Use Undermines Enjoyment 

Ryan Dwyer of the University of British Columbia did a study, Smartphone use undermines enjoyment, that looked at 300 people at dinner. He found that a smartphone at the table reduced a person’s ability to focus on the experience.

Dinner was less satisfying and the experience less enjoyable for the phone users than people who were dining without their phone at the table.

Phone users in the study also reported feeling more boredom, less happiness, and less sense of social connectedness, during the meal.

Apparently, a smartphone can kill pleasure and fun too. Dwyer said the distractedness of the phone users (divided attention?), explained the findings.

Do You Want to Give Privileged Status to Your Phone or to Your People?

Each of us ultimately chooses where we turn our attention. Your phone hijacks your attention, but you can choose what place your phone is going to have in your life. On Purpose.

Your Mission if you Choose to Accept it…

Get Experimental.. and have some fun with it

Try an experiment with no-phone zones, phone free mealtimes, and a central charging station away from bedrooms and gathering spots.

Please report in the comment section below what you did to put your phone in its rightful place, behind the people you love.

You might make this a family project to get buy-in. I suggest you check in with family members after you have made room for each other for a week. What strategies worked well? What was you best result? Let us know in the comments below.

How Hard Will It Be?

The challenge will be different for different people with different habits.

Let us know too what you found was hard to do. It may not be an easy fix… Can’t tell. How deep are the hooks? …

It is an experiment. but it is SOOO important. Your phone has power to hold your attention. But you can make real life the center of your attention, rather than your phone.

What is the best way for you, in your particular life, to put your smartphone in its place?
Please share what you decide to do and what happened in the comments below.

Couple in bed, alone together, using smartphones.

About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.