Smartphone use

A relationship between higher smartphone use and lower mindfulness shown in a survey of UW-Eau Claire students is the start of research into how the ubiquitous devices can affect concentration.

More than 250 university students took the 99-question online survey during March, and the results were shared earlier this month at a collaborative research fair at the university.

“The more you use a phone, the more dependent, the more reliant you are, the less mindful you are,” said Emily Hite, a psychology major who led the eight-student team of researchers working under associate professor of psychology David Leland.

Responses to 15 statements including “I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing,” were used to gauge the mindfulness of those who took the survey.

Those answers were then compared to how much those people reported using their phones, how they rely on them and their level of dependency on the devices. When all the answers were put on graphs, correlations appeared showing people being less mindful as they grew closer to their phones.

The survey also looked at how much people use their phones compared to their sleep time and quality.

Save for a few outliers, survey respondents said they looked at their phones between 30 minutes and nine hours each day. The middle concentration of answers was between three and six hours of daily phone use with 4.2 hours being the average.

“I thought it was going to be more,” she said.

Hite does suspect that the smartphone use survey answers may have been skewed by people’s tendency to report doing less of an activity they believe could be perceived negatively.

Students who took the survey say they usually get between six to nine hours of sleep, with half of respondents claiming the doctor-recommended seven to eight hours.

While students that use their phones a lot still reported getting plenty of sleep, they did have lower quality sleep and problems concentrating during the daytime, according to the research group’s findings.

“The more you use your phone, the worse sleep quality you have,” Hite said.

Those who exhibited nomophobia — the clinical term for a fear of being without a phone — and other measures of dependence reported getting less sleep than others who took the survey.

Though unable to prove cause-and-effect relationships between the amount of phone time and the sleep and psychological measures of the survey, the results did point to correlations between factors.

“Excessive phone use could have negative impacts on sleep and attention, but it is also possible that those who already suffer from attention or sleep problems are inclined to use their phones more or more problematically,” stated the group’s research poster.

Next year’s follow-up research is expected to go to that next level though — empirically measuring how the brain’s concentration is affected by the presence of a smartphone in the room.

Using a net of electrodes placed on participants’ heads to measure electrical signals in the brain, the researchers will measure how the mind responds to tasks.

Hite’s theory is that parts of the brain tied to attention will give out smaller signals when doing tasks on a computer while a smartphone is present in the room.

Though some specifics of that project are still being designed, the study will involve participants told to do a task on a computer either with a smartphone on the table, in their pocket or in another room.

Hite has run across studies that have tested smartphones’ effects on people’s driving and how well they’re able to fill out a form. But the upcoming research project will measure signals in the brain as opposed to testing for errors that people make while distracted by a phone.

Watching screen time

Hite found the high correlation between higher smartphone use and reduced mindfulness to be one of the more important findings of this spring’s survey.

Being mindful and enjoying opportunities available during college years is very important, she said. She urges students to “enjoy what we’re doing and not live through the phone screen.”

Like many other things that people can overdo, Hite advises people to think about how much they use their smartphones and consider putting them down every now and then.

“Technology is a great thing in moderation, just like anything else,” she said.

Hite is not alone in that thinking as one of the area’s health care providers is about to start up a program intended for people to reduce the amount of time they spend gazing at smartphones, TVs and computer monitors this summer.

Those who sign up for “Slim Your Screen Time” are challenged to complete their choice of 30 activities in June and July. A list of 130 suggested activities includes volunteering, camping, attending a community event, reading a book, playing sports or flying a kite. Those who do participate and track their progress will get a small participation prize.

Sara Carstens, director of community engagement and wellness at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, has seen estimates showing the average adult spends almost 11 hours looking at screens — phones, computers, TVs — every day. And specifically for checking cellphones, it’s typical for adults to look at them once every 10 minutes.

When it comes to kids and teens, Carstens has seen estimates that they average more than seven hours a day of screen time.

Beyond the overall number of minutes people spend gazing into a computer monitor or smartphone, Carstens said it’s important to consider how much of that is quality time versus wasted time.

“While too much screen time can be detrimental, appropriate use of screen time can deliver a beneficial, productive moment of education, connection and growth for kids and adults alike,” she said.

The biggest risk of too much screen time is it displaces human interaction. That can be especially problematic for young children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.

“Humans are social beings and when we invest our free time into screens, we may be missing out on opportunities to connect with others and feel part of our community,” Carstens said.

She added that other consequences of excessive or low-quality screen time are interfering with sleep and increasing risks of depression and obesity.

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