Your Brain Doesn't Recharge If You Use Your Phone on Break

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Participants who took phone breaks experienced the highest levels of mental depletion.

Using your phone on break during mentally challenging tasks doesn’t allow your brain to recharge effectively and may result in poorer performance, according to new research.

For the study, researchers assigned college undergraduates to solve challenging sets of word puzzles. Halfway through, some were allowed to take breaks using their cellphones. Others took breaks using paper or a computer while some took no break at all.

The participants who took phone breaks experienced the highest levels of mental depletion and were among the least capable of solving the puzzles afterwards. Their post-break efficiency and quickness was comparable to those with no break. Their number of word problems solved after the break was slightly better than those who took no break, but worse than all other participants.

Participants who took a break on their cell phone took 19% longer to do the rest of the task and solved 22% fewer problems than did those in the other break conditions combined.

“The act of reaching for your phone between tasks, or mid-task, is becoming more commonplace. It is important to know the costs associated with reaching for this device during every spare minute. We assume it’s no different from any other break—but the phone may carry increasing levels of distraction that make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks,” says coauthor Terri Kurtzberg, an associate professor of management and global business at the Rutgers University Business School.

“Cellphones may have this effect because even just seeing your phone activates thoughts of checking messages, connecting with people, access to ever-refilling information, and more, in ways that are different than how we use other screens like computers, and laptops,” she says.

Researchers gave the 414 participants sets of 20 word puzzles. They gave some a break halfway through, during which researchers told them to choose three items to buy within a specific budget, using either their cellphone, a paper circular, or a computer. The researchers told them to type or write the reasons for their selections.

The research appears in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

This article was originally published in Futurity. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

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