Smartphones and Impaired Attention Control

Ayesha Azeem ‘23

Figure 1: In a smartphone-addicted world, the portable device is the only way in which humans feel truly connected to society. 

The introduction of smartphones into human lives has transformed how people think, socialize, and entertain themselves. Nowadays, a smartphone is all one needs for immediate access to information, friends, and entertainment. Additionally, smartphones allow individuals to escape from reality, allowing for easily formed smartphone addictions to prevent from focus on real-world tasks, like work. While the impact of smartphones on cognitive function has been well-studied, little is known about the neural basis underlying impaired attention control in problematic smartphone users (PSU). In a study conducted by Jinhye Choi, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain activity related to smartphone-caused changes in attentional control while testing participants with a task that required the ability to focus and block out distractions.

Sixty-six smartphone users in their 20s and 30s were chosen to participate and were divided into two groups based on their usage patterns and their state of dependency – information received through clinician-administered interviews and the smartphone addiction proneness scale (K-SAPS), developed by the Korean Information Society. The researchers created a modified cognitive task paradigm in which a target word was presented and participants were told to press a button when the color and meaning of the word were congruent, all while ignoring the distractor words. A recognition task was also added in which participants were required to remember four digits to successfully press the button corresponding to the order of the presented number. The participants were expected to maintain their entire attention on these tasks.

This study, the first of its kind to investigate the neural mechanisms that underlie the impaired attentional control in PSU, found that PSUs had a decreased performance and enhanced activation in frontoparietal brain areas throughout the experiment, compared to the control group. These areas were recruited for attentional control, and activation patterns of the ventral regions were different between the PSU and control group users, indicating that smartphone users inefficiently recruit aspects of the neural attention network. The PSUs had slower and less accurate performance in comparison to the control group, regardless of the presence of distractors, implying that there may be smartphone-related impairments in attentional control. This study provides the first neuroimaging evidence to support impaired attentional control due to smartphones, contributing to the theory that there is an altered neural mechanism underlying an impaired ability to focus on important tasks. 

Works Cited

[1] J. Choi, et. al., The neural basis underlying impaired attentional control in problematic smartphone users. Translational Psychiatry 11, 129 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01246-5.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://www.raconteur.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Smartphone-addiction.jpg

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