Size Matters: Consumers Less Attentive To News Displayed On Small Screens

ANN ARBOR, Mich — Tens of millions of people get their news from a smartphone every day, and it’s easy to see why. We no longer have to wait for the nightly local news broadcast to catch up on the latest stories; everything happening in the world is available at our fingertips at any given moment. At first consideration, it’s hard to see a downside to getting your daily dose of news via smartphone, but a new study has found that viewing news on small screens leads to reduced attentiveness and engagement.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University discovered that study participants viewing video news stories on smaller, smartphone-sized screens exhibited less heart rate variability and a decrease in perspiration fluctuation compared to individuals watching news on larger screens. Both of these observations indicate that people aren’t as attentive to news presented on small screens.

“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,” says Stuart Soroka, professor of Communication Studies and Political Science at the University of Michigan, in a media release.

According to the research team, these findings paint a complicated picture regarding mobile technology’s impact on the news industry. On one hand, smartphones undeniably provide millions with greater access to news coverage from virtually anywhere. However, the small screens on these devices may also be making people less inclined to really pay attention to the information they are consuming, ultimately making the news coverage less informative.

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For the study, participants watched one randomly selected news report from a pool of seven different stories. The reports varied in content, for example, one was about a fire in Peru while another story profiled an American man who builds bagpipes.

The size of the video news story varied for participants, for some the size of the video was as large as 13 inches wide, while others watched a video as small as five inches wide. Participants’ heart rates and skin perspiration were tracked during viewing, and afterwards researchers determined that those who watched a smaller video exhibited diminished attentiveness and reduced reactions in comparison to those who had viewed a larger video.

The study is published in the scientific journal Information, Communication & Society.

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