line up of women staring at their phones
PHOTO: Nick

Do you ever have trouble completing a task or focusing on a conversation when your mobile device is sitting on the table in front of you, even if it isn’t ringing or binging with app notifications? If you have, you're not alone.

The inability to focus in the presence of a mobile device is not a new phenomenon, but it is gaining renewed attention with the backlash against too much screen time and the subsequent launching of the Time Well Spent movement.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships stated the mere presence of a mobile device “reduces the extent to which individuals feel empathy and understanding with a partner.” The research found these effects are most pronounced if individuals are discussing a personally meaningful topic. The disturbing conclusion is that the more important the interaction, the more pronounced the distraction. 

So in addition to mobile devices representing a huge time suck, it now appears they're shortchanging our relationships as well. A widely-referenced 2014 study published in Environment and Behavior (pdf) corroborated the earlier findings, labeling the interference of an inactive mobile device “the iPhone effect.”

Another subsequent 2014 study, published in Social Psychology, goes even further, concluding that a mobile phone’s presence also inhibits an individual’s ability to complete tasks because it causes “attentional and cognitive deficits, particularly with more complex tasks that place a greater demand on attention and cognitive resources.” These findings were confirmed in a 2017 study.

Related Article: Is Your Time Online Time Well Spent?

Can Tech Companies Solve Our Addiction to ... Tech?

The formation of the Time Well Spent movement is pushing tech companies to come to grips with the negative impact of mobile devices on our wellbeing. Some of these features are intended to reduce the amount of time we spend on mobile devices, while others are directed specifically at the iPhone effect. Apple revealed a host of new features during its WWDC conference in early June to “reduce interruptions and manage screen time,” stating that, “in iOS 12, we’re offering our users detailed information and tools to help them better understand and control the time they spend with apps and websites, how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad during the day and how they receive notifications.”

Among the new features the company is introducing include:

  • An enhanced Do Not Disturb feature “helping people stay in the moment during times like studying as well as during a class, meeting or dinner”
  • Notification control with an enhanced ability to shut off or batch push notifications from apps so they are less distracting

It is not a foregone conclusion that these features will actually improve the situation, since even when a phone is inactive, its mere presence degrades our attention and empathy. The hope is when the phone is set to Do Not Disturb and notifications are muted, our expectations of being interrupted will be reduced, and hence the presence of the phone will be less distracting.

Related Article: Technology Addiction's Impact Grows, Both In and Out of the Workplace 

Additional Tips to Reduce the iPhone Effect

The recently-formed Center for Humane Technology provides two additional tips to reduce the iPhone effect:

  1. Set your phone to grayscale. The lack of color has been proven to reduce the urge to engage with your phone. The lack of bright colors glaring up at you from the table is likely to reduce the device’s distractive allure.
  2. Remove social media apps from your phone: use them only from your computer. This will, by definition, reduce the number of distracting notifications, which will reduce the expectation of being interrupted by the phone.

Related Article: Workplace FOMO Is Real, and Getting Worse

Don't Wait for Others to Solve the Problem

With some time and experience, mobile devices may fade into the background and lose their attention-grabbing allure. But it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. History shows even a crisis is not enough to rein in dangerous conduct when it comes to tech. Case in point: the use of mobile phones while driving was shown to increase the likelihood of crashes way back in the 1990s, and legislation to curb phone use began to appear only 10 years later. But even the penalty of law has been unable to alter our life-threatening behavior. Using mobile phones while driving still happens at unprecedented rates. The National Safety Council estimates mobile phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year, an increase from 1.1 million crashes in 2013.

The message is simple. With or without new features, step away from the phone and get your life back. Before it’s too late.