Social media is distracting you: Just observe it

Reference: Throuvala, M., GriffithsM., Rennoldson, M., Kuss, D. (2020). Mind over Matter: Testing the Efficacy of an Online Randomized Controlled Trial to Reduce Distraction from Smartphone Use. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(13):4842.

(1) The new normal at social events

Have you ever found yourself locked in a smartphone screen during a social gathering or in the presence of your friends and family? I would guess the answer would be ‘yes’ for a lot us, especially for generation Z. Smartphones have become a portable ‘mini-universe’ in our hand.

Spending time with smartphone has its perks. We can now navigate our way through a complex network of roads and highways or learn how to play a guitar with the help of smartphone apps. But some excessive recreational use of smartphones involving social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat may negatively affect our mental health. We are becoming increasingly addicted to a virtual world. Whether we are working in the office or hiking on a beautiful trail, our mind will often wander to social media. We might feel the need to give an opinion about a new hairstyle posted by a friend, for example. Due to our fear of missing out (FOMO), many of us are checking our smartphones constantly. Nomophobia is terrorizing us, which is the fear of being without a mobile device. As a result, we are more stressed, more anxious, and less focused than ever before.

Research has shown that the distraction created by smartphones can cause disruption in our cognitive processes. Our daily work performance may deteriorate as well as our critical thinking ability. One group particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of excessive smartphone use is students. Students are using smartphones for a significant amount of time in the classroom, which creates distraction and hindrance in academic performance1. Social media apps can interfere with our attention in many ways, such as via an audible pop-up notification on the phone screen or the ongoing temptation to check what is new in the virtual world. Scientists have already found support for negative effects of smartphone use, but there is a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of distraction caused by excessive smartphone use and a clear need for counteractive measures. To address this need, researchers from Nottingham Trent University, UK developed a study to investigate whether mindfulness, which involves practicing awareness of the present moment, could help reduce distraction from smartphone use.

Could mindfulness reduce distraction from smartphone use?

To discover whether mindful practices can reduce smartphone distractions and other related behaviors, the researchers conducted a randomized control trial across ten days. Participants were primarily undergraduate students aged 18-32 years. All of them were regular smartphone and social media users. Prior to participation, a baseline survey was conducted with specific questions about smartphone and social media use (i.e., “How many hours per day do you use social media?”), mindful attention, self-awareness, smartphone distraction, and other psychological constructs.

Then participants were divided into two groups — one group received the intervention (termed the “treatment group”) and the other did not (called the “control group”). The intervention involved a combination of 3 smartphone-based apps: ‘Anti-Social’ allowed the participants to self-monitor or limit their daily screen time or social media use, ‘Headspace’ added brief mindfulness sessions, and ‘Pacifica’ helped them monitor and track their emotional state at different times during the day. The participants in the treatment group were told to actively use all 3 apps every day (i.e., complete mindfulness exercises, monitor emotional states, etc.) for 10 days. They also reported on their daily smartphone usage rates. Meanwhile, participants in the control group did not use these 3 apps and proceeded about their smartphone use as usual. After the intervention period, the participants were surveyed again. The intervention effects were calculated in comparison with the groups’ respective baseline results.

Mindfulness can reduce distraction from smartphones

The results showed that overall, the treatment group had fewer distractions from smartphones than the control group. The treatment group also experienced an increase in positive characteristics including self-awareness and mindful attention. Negative characteristics like stress, anxiety, and impulsiveness were lowerinthe treatment group compared to the control group. Greater access to social media produced more distractions, because people continuously obsess and monitor the media content. The authors also found that self-awareness played an important role in the beneficial effects of the intervention: The apps included in the intervention improved people’s self-awareness, which helped decrease their level of distraction from smartphones.

So, what?

This study suggests that just by being aware of our thoughts and actions – especially in the digital world – we can improve our focus and emotional state. Given there is currently little research on smartphone distraction, additional research should attempt to replicate these findings with diverse populations, which will enhance the applicability of the results in the general population. The digital age has made our life easier and more convenient, but we should be aware of the danger of losing ourselves by immersing in the virtual world. The practice of knowing oneself could be an antidote for this social illness.

Additional references:

  1. Kim, I., Kim, R., Kim, H., Kim, D., Han, K., Lee, P.H., Mark, D., Lee, U. (2019). Understanding smartphone usage in college classrooms: A long-term measurement study. Computers & Education, 141:103611.


  1. Accessed 12.07.2020. Link.