Amid myriad complaints that millennials possess shorter attention spans and experience greater difficulty focusing than previous generations unexposed to the internet and modern technology, a new study from the University of British Columbia has emerged that is almost certain to be mis-cited and misused to support this sentiment. Research has demonstrated that smartphone notifications can create symptoms in adults similar to ADHD.
What the researchers are not saying, and what many people will probably take away from this anyway, is that smartphones cause ADHD. The study doesn’t show this at all. But before we get to that, let’s break down the elements of the experiment.
Researchers studied a group of 221 young people in an “experimental distraction setting” over the course of a week. During this week, their phones were set to vibrate and were within easy reach. For the next week, their phones were placed on silent and taken away. Researchers took notes regarding the participants’ mental state and productivity during both intervals.
The lead researcher Kostadin Kushlev revealed that they honestly didn’t know what results to expect. Some members of the team postulated that regular smartphone users would experience anxiety when parted with their device and thus experience higher degrees of distraction. This isn’t what happened at all, however. When the subjects were deprived of their smartphone notifications, they were more productive, experienced less boredom, and had an easier time focusing on the tasks at hand. They were still able to check their phones, but only when they deliberately decided to, not just because a recent notification jerked their attention. Comparatively, those with smartphones on vibrate appeared to demonstrate symptoms of ADHD.
“It’s important to be clear that we’re not saying smartphones cause ADHD itself,” said Kushlev. “There’s been no research on that.” Rather, what this study shows is that the attention-grabbing buzz of our smartphones simulates the way in which sufferers of ADHD are easily pulled from concentration by unrelated minutia. Essentially, having your phone on ring or vibrate all the time is like volunteering for ADHD. The takeaway from this is not that our phones are decreasing our attention spans. Rather, if you want to be productive for a while, then maybe it would be a good idea to hold on just a second someone retweeted me.