New Research by Human+ Research Fellow Reveals How Distractions Impact Movie Watching on Smartphones and Projector Screens

05 September 2023

The widespread use of smartphones for consuming digital media has transformed how we experience movies and videos. A recent research paper titled “Smartphone spectatorship in unenclosed environments: The physiological impacts of visual and sonic distraction during movie watching on mobile devices explores how distractions affect the attention and arousal of viewers while watching movies on smartphones and projector screens. The research was conducted by Dr Kata Szita, Human+ Research Fellow based in the Trinity Longroom Hub and Brendan Rooney, Assistant Professor in the UCD School of Psychology and Director of the Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab. 

The research looks at the intricate interplay between distractions, screen types, and viewer engagement. The popularity of smartphones in media consumption is due to their convenience, portability, and multifunctionality. However, the lack of spatial and temporal constraints in this viewing mode can lead to distractions, both from the external environment and the device itself. The study delves into the influence of the modality, neutrality, and ecological relevance of distractors on the movie-watching experience.

To investigate these effects, the researchers recorded viewers’ gaze and electrodermal activity as they watched a narrative film sequence on both smartphones and projector screens. Sonic and visual distractors were introduced to mimic real-world distractions. The results unveiled significant insights into the impact of distractions on viewer attention and arousal.

The study found that the type of screen plays a crucial role in influencing attention and arousal. Compared to projector viewers, those using smartphones experienced lower arousal levels and were more prone to divert their attention from the movie, even when exposed to a distractor closely linked to the film’s content. The research also indicated that distractors demanding immediate attention and unrelated to the movie narrative effectively redirected viewers’ focus and triggered heightened electrodermal activity. Conversely, distractions relevant to the movie’s context were less likely to disrupt attention and arousal.

One notable finding was the connection between distraction intensity and screen size. The study observed that viewers using smartphones were more susceptible to distraction, particularly when the distractor was ecologically relevant to the fictional space of the movie. This suggests that the level of viewer engagement with the movie narrative might be influenced by the distraction’s semantic connection and relevance.

The research team acknowledges that while the study provides significant insights, further investigations are essential. Additionally, future studies could explore the impact of on-screen distractions, such as pop-up notifications, which are prevalent in smartphone usage.

In conclusion, the research paper offers a comprehensive understanding of how distractions interact with screen type and viewer engagement during movie-watching experiences. This knowledge could contribute to the design of more engaging and immersive media consumption experiences, taking into account the impact of distractions on different screen types.

The full paper is available on Science Direct: