Cell Phones: An Obstacle to Learning


It is very well known that electronics can be distracting. Whether it’s a computer in a classroom or a cell phone while driving, when electronics are involved people have a difficult time focusing all of their attentional capacity on the task at hand. It is no wonder that cell phones are supposed to be turned off in classrooms and even in some workplaces. Teachers and bosses want to make sure that everyone can work to their highest ability. But what about just the presence of a cell phone? Even if it is turned off, when it is sitting at your desk staring at you, could that be distracting too?

Very recently, just down road from us at University of Southern Maine, four psychologists set out to see if this is in fact true. Thronton et. Al. (2014) set up two experiments in which they tested how the presence of a cell phone affected particular tasks.

In the first experiment, they took a group of 54 undergraduate students and assigned them into random pairs in which they were told to sit at desks facing away from each other. During the study they had to complete a digit cancellation task, trial making test and fill out a Cell Phone Usage and Possession Attachment survey. At the beginning of the experiment, the experimenter placed her cell phone on one of the desks, and a spiral notebook about the same size at the other desk.

Both the Digit cancellation task (DCT) and Trail Making Test (TMT) require attention and concentration in order to be done quickly and well. The Digit cancelation task had two tasks in this experiment, one that was easier and one that was more difficult. The tasks involve a page with 20 rows of digits. In the easy task, a target number started each row and every time that number was in the row, it had to be crossed out. In the hard task, there was additive cancelation, in which the two adjacent numbers that added up to the target number must be crossed out. The purpose of this task is to measure attention, cognitive capacity and executive functioning.

The Trial Making Test was similar to the DCT in which there was both an easy and a difficult condition. In the first condition, participants must draw a line connecting 25 numbered circles in sequential order, In the second condition, the participant must do the same thing as the first condition, but they have the added task of alternating between numbers and letters in sequential and alphabetical order. There is a set amount of time that the participant has to try and complete the task. This task specifically measures attentional processes, mental flexibility and motor functioning. All of which are important for successful performance.

The results were very consistent across the DCT and the TMT. For both of the easier tasks, there was no difference between the cell phone condition and the notebook condition. However, in both of the more challenging conditions, the group in the cell phone condition made more errors than those in the notebook condition, but made it just as far as a whole.

In the second part of the study, the experimenters used the same tasks as in the first part, but instead of doing it in a laboratory setting they decided to take it into the real world. This time the study took place in two different statistics classes. Again participants completed the DCT, TMT and filled out the attentional behavior and cell phone usage survey. Only one class was told to take their phones out and put them on their desks at the beginning of the tasks; cell phones were not mentioned to the other class.

Performance was only hindered by the presence of cell phones, a finding similar to that of study 1. These two studies together show that there are some clear negative implications on the presence of a cell phone on attentional and cognitive abilities. Attention does not have an unlimited capacity, and, as these two studies show, both being on a cell phone and the presence of cell phones detract from that capacity. This makes it so less attention can be directed towards other, more pertinent things. So although we all love our cell phones, maybe its time to start thinking twice about where we put them while doing our work!



  1. Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., Rollins, E. (2014) Presence of a cell phone may be distracting. Social Psychology. 45(6), 479-488. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/zsp/45/6/479.pdf&productCode=pa
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