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We know that technology can increase feelings of anxiety as we constantly check our messages, the news, weather, social media accounts, and other applications and features offered by our smart phones. They can distract us when a call or message alert sounds in the middle of a conversation or task. They also keep us connected to our world. They give us reassurance that we are up-to-date as we make our way through each day.

What we may not know is that the mere presence of our smartphones can reduce our cognitive capabilities. Recent research published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (Ward, Duke, Gneezy, & Bos, 2017) notes that the presence of our smartphones, even if they are turned off or set to silent mode, can reduce our ability to focus, access working memory, and engage successfully in cognitive tasks. The research involved more than five hundred college undergraduates, divided almost equally by gender, and with a mean age of 21. The researchers tested the impact of the presence of smartphones in three arrangements: placed face down on the desk or table with the participant, stored in a bag or pocket with the participant, and left in another room. In each situation the phones were set to silent so they did not interrupt or alert the participant. Subsequently, the participants were given a series of cognitive tasks and challenges to measure their cognitive capacity.

The study results included a number of important findings and conclusions. First, the presence of smartphones measurably and significantly reduced the cognitive capacity of participants. Interestingly, there was no significant difference between having the smartphone on the desk or table or in a pocket or bag. The proximity of the phone appeared to be the difference. Second, participants did not have to check their smartphones to experience the reduction in cognitive capacity. Several studies have shown that knowledge of a call or message waiting can lead to distractions and reduction in performance. However, this study goes a step further to show that even without a signal or alarm smartphones can have an impact our cognitive functioning. Third, participants who reported needing their phones experienced higher levels of drop-off in functioning than those who indicated liking the presence and usefulness of their phones. Fourth, the drop off in cognitive capacity was transparent to the participants. Participants reported no awareness that the reduction in cognitive function was present.

Obviously, this research is important to our daily lives as most of us carry smartphones. It also has implications for our work with students and our efforts to help them learn. So, what can be done? The researchers offered several suggestions.

First, when the need for high-level cognitive functioning is present, that is not dependent on the use of smartphones, it is best for phones not be physically present, including in pockets and bags. Some educators have used specially designed pouches in which students place their phones to block signals, but even these pouches need to be away from the physical environment.

Second, we can help students become more aware of their dependence on their smartphones and how they can have an impact on their cognitive capacity. The more dependent they become on this technology, the greater the impact. Conversely, these users will experience even greater benefits by the absence of their smart phone.

Third, if personal technology is present in the classroom, it needs to be put to use. When technology is being used to support learning, the deleterious impact on cognition may be minimized, but consider removing it when it is not being used.

Fourth, personally, we can opt for phones with less capability and fewer features that present less distractions, or intentionally disconnect periodically. The more devices, options, and features present, the greater the opportunity for distraction and reduced cognitive capacity. We can offer this same advice to our students.

What additional ideas do you have for reducing the impact of smartphones and their presence on the cognitive capacity of your students?


Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017, April 3). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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