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December 01, 2017

There is increasing evidence that using smartphones, even just having them nearby, makes it harder to concentrate. One 2015 study1 found that when phones beep or chirp or ring while people are in the middle of a difficult task, their performance suffers, regardless of whether they check the phone. Another study2 randomly assigned college students to three experimental test-taking conditions: their phone on the desk, their phone stowed in their pocket or bag, and their phone left outside the exam room. The highest performing students (they all took the same test) were those whose phones were outside the room, while the poorest performing students were those whose phones were on their desks. “As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased.”3 When asked afterwards, nearly all the students reported that their phones had notbeen a distraction. In other words, they were completely unaware of its effect on their performance.

What does this mean for our children? Just like we tend to keep our phones always within reach, so do our kids. But with strong research evidence that its simple presence — whether used or not — seems to hijack attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings, reducing focus and problem-solving efficiency, it might be wise for parents to require kids to set their phones in a locationaway from the homework area — perhaps a designated phone basket near the front door — and retrieve the device only when schoolwork is complete.

Referencing the research, suggest to the kids that their grades may actually enjoy a bump by keeping their phones in their lockers during the school day, and especially when they know there will be a test in any given class.

What if we modeled this approach ourselves — if it’s hard for us, it will be hard for them — so that the kids see us setting our phones at some distance when we engage in something that demands focus and attention, such as reading a book, watching a movie, or participating in a serious conversation.

“As our brains grow dependent on [smartphone] technology,” writes social critic Nicholas Carr after reviewing the substantial body of research, “our intellect weakens in certain ways.”

That’s enough to keep parents awake at night.

References & Citations
  1. Stothart, C.R., et al. “The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Volume 41(4), August 2015.
  2. Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Volume 2 (2), April 2017.
  3. Carr, Nicholas. “How smartphones hijack our minds,” The Wall Street Journal, October 7-8, 2017.