Social but not social

(© ikostudio -

SINGAPORE — That shiny new smartphone in your pocket has become an integral part of modern life. We use our phones for everything from navigation to finance to entertainment. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they even became important contact tracing tools. However, some studies have suggested that the constant presence of smartphones in daily activities could actually impair our ability to think clearly. The concern was that even if left idle, smartphones may drain mental resources needed for challenging cognitive tasks. So, does the science support this smartphone-induced “brain drain” effect? A new meta-analysis combining data across multiple studies has found no evidence that a nearby smartphone significantly harms cognitive performance.

The meta-analysis, conducted by researchers from Singapore Management University and other institutions, pooled data from 33 prior studies, including over 4,000 participants. The studies compared cognitive test performance when smartphones were present in the testing environment versus when they were absent. The cognitive tests measured executive function skills like inhibitory control and working memory, as well as intelligence, attention span, and decision-making ability.

Contrary to earlier influential studies, the meta-analysis found virtually no overall difference in cognitive test scores based on smartphone presence or absence. While the distracting effect of smartphones’ notifications has been well documented, there is little evidence that the mere presence of smartphones affects cognitive processing.

In other words, a silent phone lying unused on your desk probably won’t make you dumber. So, why did some previous experiments detect cognitive impairments from nearby smartphones? The researchers suggest a few possibilities:

1. Small sample sizes made earlier significant findings more likely to be flukes. Combining small study samples in the meta-analysis yielded more reliable conclusions.

2. Expectancy effects or bias among researchers who anticipated certain results may have influenced data collection in past smartphone studies. Blinding researchers to test conditions could reduce this bias.

3. Smartphones may simply not be salient or tempting enough when left idle to pull much attention away from dedicated cognitive tasks for most people. So their mere presence causes little impairment.

Of course, smartphones can still prove distracting when actively used by interrupting tasks or spurring task-irrelevant thoughts. However, the meta-analysis indicates no significant effect on cognition merely from the presence of a silent nearby smartphone.

smartphone on table
The meta-analysis indicates no significant effect on cognition merely from the presence of a silent nearby smartphone. (Photo by Lacie Slezak from Unsplash)

To shed more light on the issue, the researchers tested several additional explanations for the mixed findings. First, they examined whether differences in experimental methods might impact outcomes. For example, did it matter if smartphones were placed face up versus face down, switched on versus off, or kept by the participant versus the researcher during testing? None of these factors affected the non-significant cognitive effect of smartphone presence.

Next, the team explored whether individual traits like smartphone dependency or fear of missing out (FoMO) cause some people’s cognition to be more vulnerable to the presence of their phones. However, smartphone dependency and FoMO levels did not change the outcome either.

The researchers also checked whether the type of cognitive test might impact sensitivity to smartphone-induced distraction. Analysis of the widely used operation span working memory test did reveal a modest negative effect of smartphone presence. However, this subset of data showed signs of publication bias, with the effect disappearing after adjustment. No other cognitive test type yielded significant results.

Lastly, considering phones’ deep integration into young adults’ lifestyles, the analysts wondered if long-term shifts toward greater distraction might be obscured by combining studies over time. Results show the year of study publication/completion did not predict any change in the effect of smartphone presence on cognition.

woman sleeping while holding still active smartphone
A new meta-analysis combining data across multiple studies has found no evidence that a nearby smartphone significantly harms cognitive performance. (© Zamrznuti tonovi –

So, where does this leave us? Given their findings, the researchers caution against blanket smartphone bans in classrooms or workplaces intended to boost productivity. For most people, the mere presence of silent smartphones seems to have little impact on mental task performance.

However, the authors recognize that actively using phones can still impede cognitive functioning for some individuals under some circumstances. Those who show signs of problematic overuse likely suffer the most consequences. Future smartphone research should focus more precisely on these high-risk groups.

In the classroom, rather than banning smartphones outright, approaches for minimizing active distraction may be preferred. Examples include apps that temporarily block certain sites, school policies limiting use to designated break times, separating phone staging areas to reduce usage temptation during instruction, or incentivizing self-monitoring of usage.

For companies, flexible work-from-home policies could provide employees opportunities to intentionally separate from potential smartphone distractions during heads-down work. Culture and leadership emphasizing balance may also be more effective than top-down prohibitive policies for addressing device overuse. However, more controlled studies on techniques to reduce active digital distraction in applied settings are still necessary.

With smartphones’ usefulness also comes the potential for misuse and overuse by some. However, the current study offers reassurance that nearby smartphones pose little inherent risk to most people’s core thinking abilities. Their mere presence alone likely won’t make you dumber – or smarter! So no need to panic next time you spot a silent phone left on a table nearby.

The study is published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior.

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