Sunway University Researchers find smartphone presence has negative effects on learning and memory

Although most people use smartphones for communication, online learning and work, there are those who use their phones from upon waking up to bedtime. This, according to experts, is a cause for concern. One study reported that young adults reached for their phones 86 times compared to 47 times in other age groups.

Associate Professor Dr Yong Min Hooi of the Department of Psychology and her undergraduate student Clarissa Tanil of the BSc (Hons) in Psychology from the School of Science and Technology at Sunway University had recently completed  a study on the effects of mobile phones on learning and memory among undergraduates. Their research paper “ Mobile Phones: The Effect of its Presence on Learning and Memory” has been published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal.

According to Dr Yong the aim of their research was to examine the effect of a smartphone’s presence on learning and memory among undergraduates. A total of 119 undergraduates completed a memory task and the Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS).

Their research has found that smartphone usage is indeed high among university students and that the presence of smartphones (placed next to the individual face-down) is enough to disrupt their performance in a learning and memory task.

“Our results showed that those without smartphones had higher recall accuracy compared to those with smartphones. Further, there was a significant negative relationship between phone conscious thought i.e. “how often did you think about your phone”, and memory recall but not for SAS and memory recall,” she said.

“Phone conscious thought significantly predicted memory accuracy. We found that the presence of a smartphone and high phone conscious thought affects one’s memory learning and recall, indicating the negative effect of a smartphone proximity to our learning and memory,” she added.

“Smartphone usage is high among students and may have wider negative consequences than originally thought. Students need to learn to ‘wean’ off their phones and engage in other activities such as reading a book or pursue outdoor activities. Unlike the smartphone, a physical book’s presence does not affect our cognitive capacity,” Dr Yong concluded.

The research project, part of Clarissa’s final year project was chosen based on her personal experience. She found that she had to keep her phone in her drawer so that she was not distracted while studying. Having submitted her dissertation and after completing her BSc (Hons) in Psychology, she worked briefly as a Research Assistant with Dr Yong in her laboratory where she continued working on the project.

“She experienced some challenges in recruiting participants for the research. I think many chose not to participate because they didn’t want to part from their phones. I also recall that she found the results rather surprising as well, because she did not think that many undergrads are facing similar difficulties.”, said Dr Yong.

The study was conducted with the use of the cognitive psychology software available at the Psychology lab on Sunway campus.

Dr Yong’s lab at Sunway University focuses primarily on age-related cognition differences. Dr Yong who is presently working on investigating age-related differences in executive function and social cognition between young and older adults, has received both local and international research grants for her research. For more information about the work done by Dr Yong and her team at the Department of Psychology at Sunway University, please visit the Psychology lab Facebook page:


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