Attentional Control and Heavy Smartphone Use



The use of smartphones has become ubiquitous in modern life, owing to the diverse functions and portability. While there are many features offered via smartphone technology that can assist, and enhance daily there are potentially undesirable side effects related to over-use (see Hadar et al., 2017) for overview. In addition a growing body of research has outlined the potential for addictive smartphone use behaviour, including classic addiction symptomatology (e.g. Kwon et al., 2013; and Lin et al., 2015) and which interferes with activities in everyday life.

There is cross-cultural evidence of a high prevalence of smartphone addiction, particularly amongst university student cohorts. E.g. 25% in the USA (Smetanuik, 2014). A key driver for excessive smartphone use is a psychological construct referred to as fear of missing out (FoMO, Elhai et al., 2016). FoMO encompasses the need to stay connected to social media due to the desire not to miss any socially important information and is commonly associated with smartphone overuse in college age individuals (Alt, 2015; Clayton et al., 2015).

Attentional Control

Various forms of addictive behaviours have been linked with inhibitory control problems using tasks such as the Stroop and Go No-Go, for example, smoking (Spinell, 2002; Luijten et al, 2001) and heavy drinking (Field et al 2007, Petit et al 2012). In the context of smartphone users, previous studies have typically identified a group consisting of heavy users of smartphones, and a low use group by using screening questionnaires. Previous studies have demonstrated alternations in ERP components for heavy smartphone users (Chen et al., 2016; Kim et al., 2016). Kim et al. (2016) presented push notifications during a Go No-Go task. Their findings suggest that in the high-use group the effect of push notifications during task performance has a more profound and longer-lasting effect on subsequent task performance, evidenced by the neurophysiological markers of attentional control.

The evidence from EEG studies suggest that push notifications can adversely affect task performance because these compete for attentional resources. Moreover, being separated from their smartphone leads many participants to develop increasing anxiety (Cheever et al., 2014) which is accompanied by physiological markers such as increased heart-rate and blood pressure (Clayton et al., 2015). In summary, cognitive performance can suffer by the presence of push notifications, (distractions), and separation from the phone (anxiety and stress, FoMO).


To examine neurophysiological correlates of attentional control in smartphone users. This initial pilot study is necessary to collect preliminary data from the EEG experiment, to test the experimental design and paradigm. Future work will involve a larger participant sample and additional measures.


Twenty adult participants will be recruited through the university community (SONA, intranet advert).

Participants will be invited to the Psychology EEG lab where informed written consent will be obtained (see appendix 2) and participants will be asked to complete a smartphone addiction scale (SAS, Kwon et al., 2013 Appendix 1). Participants will also be asked to consent to download an app-usage tracker to their smartphone (“App Timer Mini” commercially available from Google Play Store), and report the usage data over 7 days to the researcher. This will provide an additional objective measure of smartphone usage (e.g. see Chen et al., 2016).

Participants will then be fitted with the EEG electrode cap (elasticated similar to a swimming hat). The researcher will place a small amount of conduction gel in each electrode fitting on the cap, before inserting the electrodes and checking the positioning and recording quality. This process lasts approximately 40 minutes during which participants will be free to use their smartphones, read or listen to music as they wish.

Once the EEG set up is completed participants will be asked to perform an attentionally demanding declarative learning task (learning the association between objects and verbal labels, comparable to vocabulary learning). Simultaneously they will be exposed to a range of auditory stimuli, which are either task relevant (and require a keyboard button press response) or irrelevant (to be ignored). Relevant stimuli will consist of a short sequence of auditory tones (much like a morning alarm). Irrelevant stimuli will be smartphone notification tones or a vibration alert. This task will last approximately 25 minutes.

EEG will be recorded throughout the task to determine whether responses to relevant and irrelevant stimuli differ, and whether suppression of irrelevant stimuli varies according to smartphone use. In addition, galvanic skin responses will be monitored (using a small electrode placed on the skin of the forearm). It is predicted that the amplitude of GSR will be greatest for those participants who are least able to inhibit responses to the task-irrelevant push notifications, reflecting a physiological response to the stress associated with being unable to check message notifications. Participants are offered £15 Amazon vouchers for their time.
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