Push Notifications Are as Distracting as Phone Calls

A new study indicates that people are very distracted just by receiving a text message—even if they ignore it.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Fifteen years ago, cellphones announced their presence with a long and sometimes silly ring. Now, our devices are less likely to ring than emit a single beep or boop. Even a muted vibration might indicate a text or a new score or a Facebook message.

A new study from three researchers at Florida State University suggests that merely receiving a push notification is as distracting as responding to a text message or a phone call.

The study asked more than 150 students to complete a well-known test of sustained attentional performance. For that test, subjects are shown a series of single digits on a screen. A new digit is displayed about every second. Students are supposed to tap the keyboard every time the digit changes, unless the new digit is 3. (Though it’s not interactive, you can see a version of this test on YouTube.) Everyone took the test twice: the first time, they did it uninterrupted by their devices; the second time, assistants placed calls or texts to some of the students’ phones.

The researchers found that performance on the assessment suffered if the student received any kind of audible notification. That is, every kind of phone distraction was equally destructive to their performance: An irruptive ping distracted people just as much as a shrill, sustained ring tone. It didn’t matter, too, if a student ignored the text or didn’t answer the phone: As long as they got a notification, and knew they got it, their test performance suffered.

“Our results suggest that mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device,” write the study’s authors. “As mobile phones become integrated into more and more tasks, it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand, whatever it may be.”

Furthermore, they add, the feeling of “divided attention” may be so uncomfortable that it drives people to look at their phones, even if they know they shouldn’t. “If people are genuinely distracted by notification-induced thoughts, some problematic mobile phone use could be prompted by the desire to escape that feeling,” they write.

For me, the study hints at a few more shifts in the way people communicate today. First, notifications are not some filigree on top of the experience of using a smartphone app. Notifications are in fact crucial to our experience of using the phone and crucial to our day-to-day life. Apps which frequently notify users are disrespecting their time in meaningful, measurable ways.

Second, that getting a notification is the distracting thing, not the speed with which that notification is dispatched. One of Apple’s selling points for its Watch is that people find it tiring and distracting to keep pulling out our phones to see what’s pinging them. The Watch, says the company, is a gentler, faster way to see and address notifications. You can glance at your wrist instead of taking your phone out of your pocket!

This study undermines that: It suggests that just getting a notification is distracting. You don’t even need to glance at your wrist or look at your phone. Your attention has already been split.