Media consumption is increasingly conducted on-the-go. Whether its binge-watching episodes of Stranger Things, social networking, or watching the news, there’s an app for that. And ongoing improvements in smartphones, wireless coverage, network connectivity and speed make doing all these things on mobile devices more than possible; for many it’s preferable.

Industry trends are indicative. The global proliferation of smartphones is staggering. In the U.S., more than half the public own smartphones, and a growing proportion are abandoning subscriptions to home high-speed internet services, opting to rely on mobile-only access. This is especially true for those historically disadvantaged by lingering digital divides. Because smartphones and wireless plans are relatively affordable and portable, the expansion of mobile is helping people overcome previous barriers to having physical access to the internet. We see this reflected by the fact that smartphone proliferation is linked to gains in internet access for younger people, low-income groups, rural populations, and racial and ethnic minorities. There seems to be little doubt: smartphones are expanding physical access to information because they make access to the internet available to more people, in more places, and at more times throughout the day than ever before.

As researchers interested in news and politics, these trends made us wonder about the consequences of all this on-the-go-consumption. Smartphones may make it possible for more people to seek out and consume news more often and in more places than ever before, but how does the use of smartphones affect the way in which we understand news?

Research from several fields shows that both the content of media messages and the way they are presented (i.e. message structure) can affect how cognitively accessible they are, that is, how easily they are processed. In terms of message content, we know that the tone of news stories can affect peoples’ attentiveness to it, for instance: negative news stories typically elicit more attention than neutral or positive news stories. Similarly, text or print based news stories may be more difficult to process than audio-visual stories if they contain more, or more complex, message content.

Research also suggests that smartphones are more likely to affect information processing through their effects on message display, or structure, than through their effects on message content. Specifically, studies examining the effect of screen size suggest that the very feature of smartphones that make them so popular – their small size, which affords portability – makes information harder to process. Distinguishing between physical vs cognitive access to information, existing research gave us reason to expect that even as smartphones expand the former, they may restrict the latter. We think this is something important to understand. More people may be seeing the news with mobile, but does that matter if they pay less attention to it?

To further explore this possibility, we conducted a lab experiment with participants in Texas and Michigan. The experiment was relatively straightforward: Respondents watched a set of real network news stories, randomized to either a laptop screen-sized video, or a smartphone screen-sized video. Both were viewed on a laptop, sitting at a table; as a consequence all other factors were held constant. The only difference between the treatments was the size of the video content.

We captured participants’ activation and attentiveness in real time, using physiological encoders that captured both skin conductance (sweat) and heart rate variability. Skin conductance is a common measure of physiological/emotional activation. Heart rate variability captures a combination of activation (increasing heart rate) and attentiveness (decreasing heart rate).

The results suggest that heart rate variability decreases alongside screen size. This is a first indication that mobile technology may limit cognitive access to information even as it increases physical access to that information. And we find similar results when comparing skin conductance across negative and positive video content. The connection between news negativity and heightened skin conductance is stronger in the larger-screen condition than in the smaller-screen condition. This is a second indication that the content of video has a stronger effect when screen size is larger.

The idea that screen size matters should not surprise anyone who goes to a movie theatre, of course. Watching the latest blockbuster on your laptop is clearly a more muted experience than watching it in the theatre. (Indeed, some of the work on which our research is based focuses on screen size for entertainment media.) But the finding that changes in screen sizes matter, even for the relatively small shift from a laptop- to a smartphone-sized screen is relatively striking – especially given that our news content is not nearly as dramatic as the average film. We find evidence that cognitive access to news content varies, in statistically-significant ways, across rather small changes in screen size.

Perhaps political engagement depends on everyone getting a fancy (very) big phone. That’s probably not an actionable finding. More likely, our findings should give pause to those who view mobile technology as a magical key to increased political knowledge and participation. Whether the positive consequences of mobility outweigh the negative consequences of small screens is as-yet unclear. But our (and other) recent work suggests that the impact of mobile technology on political engagement may be more muted than expected.



Johanna Dunaway is an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University. Her most recent work examines attention to news across digital platforms, physiological responses to news content, and the relationship between news media and political behavior among elites and the mass public.


Stuart Soroka is the Michael W. Traugott collegiate professor of communication studies and political science, and faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. His research focuses on political communication, the sources and/or structure of public preferences for policy, and the relationships between public policy, public opinion, and mass media.