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Need some headspace? Get off your phone

Using your mobile phone while taking supposed breaks exacerbates mental depletion and leads to poorer performance overall, according to a new study.

Researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey have found that using a mobile phone while taking a break during mentally challenging tasks does not allow the brain to recharge effectively and may result in poorer performance.

The study, published in Behavioral Addictions, tasked respondents with solving challenging word puzzles, during which some were allowed to take breaks using their phones, while others took breaks using paper or a computer. 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, the researchers found.

“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,” they said.

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

Rutgers associate professor and study co-author Terry Kurtzberg said 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,” she said.

“[Mobile phones] 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.”