Pushed to Distraction

Concentrating at university is hard enough, let alone when faced with a constant array of push notifications from our mobile devices.

As mobile technology becomes progressively integrated into our learning environment,  “it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand” (Stothart p.9 2015). And, with 81% of people owning smartphones, 59% of people owning laptops and 45% of people owning iPads or other tablets in Australia (Sensis 2017 p.9) the push notifications on these devices are essentially unavoidable.

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A small study* was recently undertaken at a regional university in NSW which delved into the correlation between push notifications and concentration in university students. This study aimed to provide qualitative data among a quantitatively-dominated discussion. So, rather than simply proving that push notifications were a cause of distraction for students, the questions became: why? And how? Why are push notifications such a distraction and what are the factors which contribute to this distraction? And how are students using push notifications to their advantage?

Push Notifications: Helpful or Harmful?
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The value of mobile devices in the classroom is clear: they “make a positive difference in how students learn”. But, with Australians checking their phones 560 million times per day (Deloitte p.24 2017), could mobile devices be more of a distraction than a useful learning tool?

All of the study’s respondents used mobile devices that had push notifications enabled. 77% of these students expressed that they were receiving push notifications frequently, if not non-stop. One participant noted that they received push notifications “every day, at any time… constantly”, while another student, mentioned that they “don’t know how people stand [push notifications] …it would be non-stop”.

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Whether our notifications are disabled or not, they are still distracting us. In a study undertaken by Martin Pielot and Luz Rello, where individuals disabled app notifications for 24 hours, the individuals “found it easier to concentrate”, but they “[checked] their phone more as a result” (Ghosh, 2017).

Similarly, the university study found a clear correlation between students receiving push notifications and their loss of focus in class. 46% of the students reported that they frequently or always become distracted by push notifications, and 52% admitted that they become distracted by push notifications “somewhat easily”.

However, the study also found that push notifications may not be the sole cause of distraction in the classroom. As the Harvard Business Review proposes, we are not able to distinguish the true cause of the distraction which results from exposure to push notifications (Net-works 2018). Leaving the question: why are students so distracted by push notifications?

Discipline is key

Respondents thought that “push notifications were designed to reel you in” but it was the individual’s lack of discipline that led to their loss of focus in class. By nature, the notifications seem urgent “because they make noise and pop up on your phone”, leaving students feeling as though an immediate reply is warranted. The study showed that students engaged with notifications frequently overall, but at vastly different rates individually. This indicated that although there is a brief lapse of focus when an individual is exposed to a push notification, it is their choice to interact with the notification that completely distracts them.

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Fig.2: Students’ engagement with push notifications

Interestingly, the study produced mixed results regarding the students’ habits of disabling of push notifications. Some respondents indicated that they purposely blocked notifications (using different strategies) during class to avoid distraction. But others did nothing at all. Does this indicate a widespread behavioural issue in regard to mobile technology?

Fig.3: Strategies for preventing distraction
Fig.4: How often students block notifications
The Ringxiety is Real

The prevalence of students experiencing phantom notifications was a surprising find for the study, with 71% of the respondents acknowledging that they had experienced the phenomena. According to Kruger (2017), this is not perceived to be a mechanical issue, but rather a sign of psychological dependency. Meaning that an addiction to mobile devices may be a possible factor in the students’ tendency to become distracted by push notifications. However, due to the constraints* of the study, this correlation was unable to be confirmed. Thus, further research into the matter may be warranted.

Let’s not get sentimental

The students’ emotional reaction to the notifications they received was another possible factor in their loss of focus. Of the respondents, 67% associated a positive emotion with receiving a notification, which correlated with the finding that students were becoming distracted by the mere anticipation of receiving a notification. This can be explained by Mauricio Delgado, who reported that the dopamine release that results from receiving a notification creates an affirmation in the one’s psyche that leaves them more inclined to check the notification.

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The verdict

Distraction-by-notification is an accepted part of the university experience. The study concluded that push notifications may not have a wholly positive or negative impact on students. They may be somewhere in between. For the respondents, push notifications “can be either exciting or… annoying”; and remain a useful tool for self-organisation. Push notifications are clearly a distraction caused by a variety of factors unique to the individual. Indicating that this is an issue which requires further exploration.

*Please note: this study was limited by its small sample size, and the fact the data was self-reported.


Deloitte (2017). Mobile Consumer Survey 2017. Australian Cut. [online] p.24. Available at: https://landing.deloitte.com.au/rs/761-IBL-328/images/tmt-mobile-consumer-survey-2017_pdf.pdf?utm_source=marketo&utm_medium=lp&utm_campaign=tmt-mobile-consumer-survey-2017&utm_content=body [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

Ghosh, S. (2017). ‘STUDY: people felt less stressed and distracted after 24 hours without phone notifications’, Business Insider Australia. [online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/study-switching-off-phone-notifications-more-productive-2017-9?r=UK&IR=T [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

Kruger, D. (2017). What’s behind phantom cellphone buzzes?. The Conversation. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/whats-behind-phantom-cellphone-buzzes-73829 [Accessed 2 Jun. 2018].

Kruger, D. and Djerf, J. (2016). ‘High Ringxiety: Attachment Anxiety Predicts Experiences of Phantom Cell Phone Ringing’, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 1, pp.56-59.

Libguides.usc.edu. (2018). Research Guides: Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Limitations of the Study. [online] Available at: http://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/limitations [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

Lynch, M. (2015). Do mobile devices in the classroom really improve learning outcomes?. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/do-mobile-devices-in-the-classroom-really-improve-learning-outcomes-38740 [Accessed 31 May 2018].

Net-works. (2018). A Proposal. [online] Available at: https://digijas.wordpress.com/2018/03/18/a-proposal/ [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

Sensis (2018). Sensis Social Media Report 2017. [online] Available at: https://www.sensis.com.au/asset/PDFdirectory/Sensis_Social_Media_Report_2017-Chapter-1.pdf [Accessed 28 May 2018].

Soat, M. (2015). Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High. American Marketing Association: Marketing News. [online] Available at: https://www.ama.org/publications/MarketingNews/Pages/feeding-the-addiction.aspx [Accessed 2 Jun. 2018].

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A. and Yehnert, C. (2015). ‘The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41, 4, pp.893-897.







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