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Smartphones may limit understanding of news content

In a new study, associate professor Johanna Dunaway found that screen size can affect how well you understand information from video news.


By Alix Poth ’18

Johanna Dunaway

Screen size matters when it comes to understanding news content, a new study shows. 

Johanna Dunaway, associate professor of Texas A&M’s Department of Communication, led an investigation of how smartphone-sized screens affect cognitive access to video news stories. Along with Stuart Soroka of the University of Michigan, their research strongly indicates that screen size impacts the ability to process new information from video news. 

Our study and results are significant because they provide an important distinction between physical and cognitive access to information,” Dunaway said. “It points out that the positive aspects of widening internet access via smartphones may be offset by information processing constraints imposed by smaller screens.”

The results of the study showed that watching video news on smaller screens is associated with lower cognitive engagement with the video content, indicated by a decreased heart rate variability and weakened skin conductance responses. 


“[Smartphones] increase one form of access to news and political information even as it reduces another.”


Soroka reported to the University of Michigan that the study of this specific topic is a first of its kind: “We are, to our knowledge, the first to find this effect for news content, and the first to focus on the move from a laptop to smartphone-size screen. This finding is of some significance given the trend towards news consumption on mobile technology,” he said. 

Physical availability of affordable, functional smartphones is increasing globally, and more people have access to information via the internet than ever before. With that, however, people are relying more on mobile devices with Internet access to stay informed and entertained.  

“People are relying heavily on these devices for information while being unaware of the subtle but limiting cognitive processing differences imposed by small screens,” Dunaway said. “We highlight the potentially countervailing effects of mobile technology, while also providing a framework for understanding how it increases one form of access to news and political information even as it reduces another.”  

Dunaway suggests these results have important implications for everyday life. 

“It’s important for people to be aware of these differences, especially in places where many people are mobile-dependent for access to the internet,” she said. “It’s also important for news organizations to be aware of the differences small screens make for the engagement of their audiences. As they scramble to adapt to the mobile environment, it will be important for news outlets to find ways to optimize engagement as much as possible on small screens.”

Read more about the research here