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16.11.2018

Does the omnipresence of the smartphone damage concentration?

This was the central question of the annual teaching project that Dr. Christoph Kuhlmann conducted with students in the course "Quantitative Methods of Communication Science" this summer semester.

Source: Empirical Media Research and Political Communication Group

Under his guidance, a questionnaire was developed for an online survey covering three areas of life: media use, school and work, and couple relationships. For these areas, it was assumed that actors expect concentration from themselves (and others) at least in certain areas and that a possible negative influence of parallel smartphone use would therefore be relevant. The results vary greatly from area to area: the all-clear can largely be given for love life: Only playing while being together with the partner has weak negative effects on the ability to concentrate during conversations (-.16) and the exchange of tenderness (-.21). In sexual activities, it is apparently still common to put the smartphone out of hand.

When using other media (than the smartphone), parallel use of the smartphone has more, but also rather weak effects on concentration. The more frequently someone uses their smartphone in parallel,

  • the more often he has to read sentences or paragraphs in current print media several times (+.22)
  • the lower he estimates his concentration in print reading (-.22).
  • the less he perceives radio messages (-.13)
  • the lower he estimates his concentration when listening to the radio (-.14)
  • the more frequently it rewinds when watching a series (+.24) or watches episodes again (+.17)
  • the less it can reproduce the plot of motion pictures (-.26)
  • the more often he performs reckless gameplay in video games (+.25).

No noteworthy effects of parallel smartphone use were found for reading books and watching movies. Even positive effects can be found when listening to music. Here, the parallel use of smartphones increases the recognition of new pieces of music (+.18) as well as the memory of melody (+.21) and text (+.14).

The effects in the study area are much stronger. Smartphone use during lectures (-.41), homework for studies (-.30) and teamwork (.30) has a negative effect on the general question of self-assessment of concentration in courses. Use during courses also means that respondents experience distractions more frequently (use in lecture +.57, use in seminar +.38), that they more frequently do not hear what the lecturer said (lecture +.33, seminar +.25), and that they have to invest more time in follow-up (lecture +.36, seminar +.32). In homework, the concentration in reading technical literature suffers additionally from the parallel use of smartphones (-.25).

Particularly interesting is the finding that with increasing use in lectures and seminars, the frequency with which one thinks of the smartphone while not using it increases. In this respect, restrictions on the use of a smartphone may not be very productive if the withdrawal of the device then leads to the thoughts wandering incessantly to the question of who has probably just written...

However, the findings presented must be limited to the extent that the general decline in willingness to take part in surveys was also evident in this project, where only 268 of a targeted number of 1200 interviewees by quota sampling could be carried out. It is possible that such surveys will have to be optimised for completion by smartphone in future, which was not done this time due to the complexity of the questions and scales.