Smartphones Make It Easier to Follow the News, but Harder to Comprehend

News coverage of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee felt a lot like a live choose your own adventure game. You could watch the live feed, read the raw transcripts, follow live news analyses written by reporters and political commentators, or just watch Twitter blow up before your eyes. Now, in the aftermath, there are plenty of opinion pieces, hot takes, and deep dives to wade through—much more information than the average person has time to consume in one sitting.

Thank goodness for smart phones and tablets, right?

Not quite. While mobile devices make it possible to check in on Comey from anywhere, new research shows following the news on mobile devices is subpar when it comes to reading and actually retaining that information.

In a series of recent studies, a research team led by Johanna Dunaway, a communications professor at Texas A&M, and Kathleen Searles, a political communication professor at Louisiana State University, investigated what happens when people follow the news on mobile devices rather than computers. What the Dunaway-Searles research team found suggests that people who rely solely on mobile devices may be at a considerable disadvantage.

To consider how people follow news on mobile devices versus how people follow news on a computer, they conducted a series of studies that tracked precisely how people see the news on different devices and what information they remember. In most of their studies, participants were asked to read a basic political story either on an average-sized smartphone screen, an average-sized tablet screen, and an average-sized computer screen. Notably, the participants in these studies were young: these were people who should have been highly familiar with both, mobile devices and computers. What’s more, their studies had a captive audience—participants had nothing else to do but read the information the research team provided.

News organizations have a big task ahead of them in informing a public which is increasingly less-likely to sit down at a computer.

What makes these studies unique is the way that the research team captured the process of following the news. Their research relied on eye-tracking, a method that uses sensors to monitor where a person’s eyes land on a screen and how long a person looks at each piece of information. Eye-tracking technology also measures pupil dilation, which can tell the researchers about each person’s cognitive effort. In other words, the extent to which people’s pupils dilated indicated how hard people were working to read the article. In addition to using eye-tracking sensors, at the end of each of their studies the research team asked participants simple recall questions like, “What was the main issue the article discussed?”

Across more than 1,000 different participants, they found a strikingly similar pattern: people are distinctly less engaged with the news on mobile devices.

First, they found that people spend more time reading the same news story when they are on a computer than when they are on a mobile device. People spent 52.31 seconds reading a six-paragraph story about Marco Rubio on a computer but only spent an average of 12.20 seconds reading the very same story on a tablet and 18.49 seconds on a phone. They observed a similar pattern for stories about equal-pay laws and President Donald Trump.

But more important than time people spent reading is what they remembered from each story. Across all of their studies, participants who read news stories on the computer recalled more information about the articles and could list more facts about the information they’d read. Even more striking is what happened to their participants 24 hours after the study: the gap in factual recall between computer and mobile users actually increased.

But the differences don’t end here. Since the Dunaway-Searles research team used eye-tracking, they could learn how much cognitive effort it takes people to get through a single article on these different devices. They found that it was much more effortful for people to read the stories on their mobile devices than on the computer. Put another way, people’s eyes were working harder to finish the news articles on tablets and mobile phones.

But what if people just behave differently when they are in a researcher’s laboratory? In addition to their studies, the researchers also partnered with comScore, an organization that tracks web traffic and web user behavior in the United States. Using these data, Dunaway and Searles were able to consider how people behave outside the lab, when left to their own devices.

What they find is that on average people using tablets and smartphones spend significantly less time on websites related to news. This isn’t just a “news effect.” Dunaway and Searles show that the time gap is actually larger for entertainment websites. It isn’t just that reading the news is “work” and people use smartphones and tablets for fun. The results suggest that people spend much less time reading most types of information once they are on a mobile device.

The Dunaway-Searles work is novel in its use of eye-tracking and clear in its argument that mobile use comes at a cost (though, it should be noted, their research has not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal). Given the novelty, there are still a number of questions the research team has yet to answer. What is it about smartphones and tablets that leads people to work harder but remember less? Why, precisely, is it that the use of mobile devices comes at such a cost?

Despite the still unanswered questions, Dunaway and Searles are not alone in their suggestion that there is something unique—and potentially costly—about the relationship between device and people’s ability to retain information. In 2016, for example, Shlomo Benartzi wrote in The New York Times about a pilot survey which suggested that people showed less financial literacy when they took a test on a mobile device than in old-fashioned pen and paper.

So where does this leave us? Well, if people are increasingly relying on their mobile devices for news (which they are), and people struggle to comprehend news on their mobile devices (which they do), then news organizations have a big task ahead of them in informing a public which is increasingly less-likely to sit down at a computer.

Further Reading & Resources

Dunaway, J. (2016) “Mobile vs. Computer: Implications for News Audiences and Outlets” Discussion Paper Series #D-103. Harvard University, Cambridge: Shorenstein Center. (Link)

Gaskins, B., & Jerit, J. (2012). “Internet News: Is it a Replacement for Traditional Media Outlets?” The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(2), 190-213. (Link)

Knight Foundation. (2016). Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information. (Link)

Shah, D., Cho, J., Eveland, W.P and Kwak, N. (2005) “Information and Expression in a Digital Age: Modeling Internet Effects on Civic Participation” Communication Research. 32(5) 531-565. (Link)

Vraga, E., Bode, L., & Troller-Renfree, S. (2016). “Beyond self-reports: Using Eye Tracking to Measure Topic and Style Differences in Attention to Social Media Content.” Communication Methods and Measures, 10(2-3), 149-164. (Link)