Negative Effects of Cell Phone Use on Attention and Memory

With increasing use of cell phones, society has grown attached to these mobile devices and our attention and memory have been strongly affected. In a recent article, Galván, Vessal, and Golly (2013) examine the effects of one-sided and two-sided conversations on attention and memory of bystanders.

Cell Phone Distraction

In this experiment, researchers led participants to believe that the study’s purpose was to test their ability to complete an anagram, a task that requires the unscrambling of letters to complete a word. Participants were in fact given anagrams, however this was not the direct purpose of the study. During the anagram task, participants either overheard a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone, a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone but there was also a silent confederate in the room ignoring the conversation, or a two-sided conversation between two confederates. A confederate is an individual who is in on the study, but will act as a random participant. The conversations presented were scripted and covered three different topics.

After the conversation ended, participants were given a recognition test. This included words from the conversation, related words that were from the same category as the actual words used but weren’t part of the conversation, and other words of varying relatedness to the conversation. Additionally, participants were given a distractibility scale, which was a questionnaire about how distractive participants thought the conversations were.

For the experiment, the participants were assigned one of the three conditions (a one-sided conversation on the phone, a one-sided conversation on the phone with another confederate in the room, or a two-sided conversation between confederates). Once the participant sat down at their desk, they were given the anagram task. The researcher would pretend that the other copies of the anagram tasks were bad, so they had to leave the room to make more copies for the confederate in the room. Once the participant began completing the anagram tasks, the confederate would either answer a phone call or begin conversing with the other confederate, depending on the assigned condition. Once the experimenter got back to the room, they gave the participant the recognition memory test and the distractibility scale.

Individuals that received the treatment where they heard a one-sided conversation but there was a silent confederate in the room were grouped together with those that just heard the one-sided conversation. Then, there was the second group of participants who heard the two-sided conversation. Results from the distractibility scale showed that the participants in the group that heard the one-sided conversation found it to be more noticeable, distracting, found the content and volume was more annoying, and were more surprised that the conversation took place than the group who heard the two-sided conversation. Individuals who heard the one-sided conversation also had more accurate scores on the recognition task and were more confident in their responses to the words in the conversations. This goes to show that individuals are more distracted by and pay more attention to one-sided conversations on a cell phone, rather than two-sided conversations.

This issue of cell phones and attention is one that is very current and applicable, as the increasing use of cell phones have affected everyday tasks that require our attention. This fairly new development in technology brings us many benefits, such as immediate communication and portable access to the Internet. However the addicting nature of attachment to the device has its negative effects.

Cell Phone in Class.png

Within the classroom especially, the existence of cell phones has presented a huge problem. Students, especially at the college level, have access to their cell phones during class time on a regular basis. Further research has found that simply having a cell phone out on a student’s desk can be distracting, in addition to texting or surfing the web. Thus, it doesn’t have to be as blatant and straightforward as a verbal conversation that can be distracting towards others; the simple presence of the device can affect attention and memory as well.

It is important to become educated on these issues, particularly for students or educators. As learning in a classroom environment requires high levels of attention, eliminating causes of distraction will be beneficial for the students’ success. Using this research-based evidence, educators can make informed decisions regarding their classroom protocol, and have cell phone policies to eliminate their use during class time instruction.


Galvan, V. V., Vessal, R. S., & Golley, M. T. (2013). The effects of cell phone conversations on the attention and memory of bystanders. PLoS ONE, 8(3).


Abigail Koetting


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