Press release 68/23 - 19.09.2023

Smartphones can reduce memory and attention even when absent

A new study has investigated the smartphone “brain drain effect” showing cultural differences.

Since 2017, the detrimental effect of smartphones on attention and memory has been known as the “brain drain effect.” A research team at the University of Augsburg led by Prof. Dr Klaus Zierer recently published the results of a meta-analysis comparing 22 studies, which confirmed the effect. The “brain drain effect” poses particular challenges for educating children and young people about media use.
Children and young people use their smartphones a lot. A new meta-study from the University of Augsburg shows that this can reduce attention and cognitive performance. Photo: Adobe Stock

A brief look at the German parliament shows that even parliamentarians do not listen; rather, they swipe away on their smartphones. Even among the government’s own parliamentarians this behaviour is widespread, which prompted the president of the Bundestag in 2022, Bärbel Bas, to call for abstinence from mobile phone usage. Such behaviour damaged the public’s perception of democracy, according to Bas. 

Yet far more damaging than unrestrained use of smartphones is the “brain drain effect.” Prof. Dr Klaus Zierer, who holds the chair for educational pedagogy, explains that “The brain drain effect derives from a study of the same name by Ward and colleagues in 2017, who were the first to show that the presence of smartphones reduces both attention and memory.”

As is so often the case in psychological research, these results could not be replicated one to one, with the result that the question of whether the “brain drain effect” really existed or not remained. Led by Zierer, the research group therefore pursued this question in their recently published meta-analysis titled “Does the Brain Drain Effect Really Exist?”

The meta-analysis investigated international studies that dealt with the effect. The researchers found 22 studies that confirmed the results of Ward and colleagues in 2017: namely, that the mere presence of smartphones influenced the cognitive performance of their owners albeit differently, with memory and attention more strongly affected than the completion of simple tasks such as spelling. Cultural differences in the studies were also interesting to note. In Asia, for example, the effects were more strongly observed than in North America and Europe. One reason for the divergent effects, according to Zierer, is that new mechanisms that promote dependency are constantly emerging and spreading. “People who already spend a lot of time with their smartphones are now more stressed by their absence than their presence,” says Zierer.

This is especially relevant for education and parenting since children and young people tend to use their smartphones a lot. The researchers of the meta-analysis, Tobias Böttger, Michael Poschik, and Klaus Zierer, have therefore come to a clear conclusion: the use of digital media for educational purposes must be regulated and supervised. Media education must therefore include two perspectives: “On the one hand, children, in particular, must be protected from unregulated content and use of their smartphones.” A general prohibition on smartphones, particularly in schools, is therefore helpful, as mentioned in the recent Global Education Monitoring report by UNESCO (2023). This should be considered for primary schools, in particular, as well as for the lower levels of secondary school. “On the other hand, educational concepts must be developed that introduce young people to the use of smartphones, with a focus on self-reflection and self-responsibility,” the researchers argue. This means that teaching staff not only require technical knowledge of smartphones but, above all else, knowledge of their distracting effects and their influence on memory, attention, and general cognitive performance. “It would be irresponsible to unreflectively bring the naïve use of media into a pedagogical context,” emphasises Zierer.     

Original publication:
Böttger, T., Poschik, M., Zierer, K. “Does the Brain Drain Effect Really Exist? A Meta-Analysis.” Behav. Sci. 2023, 13, 751.


Scientific Contact

Ordinarius für Schulpädagogik

Media Contact

Michael Hallermayer
Deputy Media Officer
Communications and Media Relations