Leo Sher, M.D.
A research report, “Reach for your cell phone at your own risk: The cognitive costs of media choice for breaks” has been published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions online ahead of print (1). Researchers from the Rutgers University Business School in New Jersey observed that using a cellphone to take a break during mentally demanding tasks does not permit the brain to recharge effectively and may lead to poorer performance.
An experimental study included 414 undergraduate students who completed a cognitively demanding task (solving anagrams) either on paper or on a computer screen. Fifty six percent of study participants were males and 44% of study participants were females. An average age of study subjects was 22 years. Participants in three of four randomly assigned conditions engaged in a break task (selecting items for a hypothetical shopping list) either on a cell phone, a larger computer screen, or on a paper in the middle of the task. The fourth condition had participants engaging in both halves of the cognitive task with no break. A no-break condition was included as a control.
The authors found cognitive depletion differences between cell phone breaks and other types of breaks, with a medium effect size. In other words, participants in the cell phone break condition took longer in the second half of the task than those who took other breaks. Participants in the cell phone break condition solved more anagrams in the second half of the task than those in the no-break condition, but fewer than those with any other type of break, with a medium effect size.
The results show that using a cell phone for a break did not allow brain to recharge as effectively as the other types of breaks, both in terms of being able to perform quickly and efficiently in the second half of the task (how long it took to complete), and in terms of performance (how many anagrams were successfully solved in the second half). The authors suggest that breaks might be better spent without the cell phone, if the aim is to have restored cognitive ability for subsequent work tasks.
- Kang S, Kurtzberg TR. Reach for your cell phone at your own risk: The cognitive costs of media choice for breaks. J Behav Addict. 2019 Aug 16:1-9. doi: 10.1556/2006.8.2019.21. [Epub ahead of print]