Phone vs PC: Device dictates how we process online deception, study finds
Smartphones versus personal computers. One tends to be used more for ‘play,’ while the other is favored for work. A new study has found that the way we process deceptive online information very much depends on the device we’re using to view it.
Smartphones enable us to access immense amounts of information relevant to many areas of our lives, from communication and entertainment to work. They’re set apart from personal computers (PCs) not only due to obvious physical differences, including screen size, typing mode, and portability, but also because of how they’re used.
Studies have found that a PC’s larger screen makes content more visually appealing and gives users a perceived enhanced degree of control, facilitating better information processing. In contrast, research into smartphones suggests that the smaller screen – necessitating touch control, such as scrolling with a finger – ‘personalizes’ the technology, making it more intimate. Regarding their use, PCs are considered less distracting than smartphones because there are fewer push notifications and apps to contend with. Moreover, studies have found that PCs are generally favored for carrying out more significant, complex, longer tasks related to work and productivity.
Considering these differences prompted researchers from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) to ask the question, ‘Do people process information differently on smartphones versus PCs?’
“A good number of people report that they habitually use a mobile phone for everything from entertainment to work, and it serves them well, but habitual mobile phone usage leads them to let their guard down,” said S. Shyam Sundar, one of the study’s co-authors.
The researchers conducted two online between-subjects field experiments to compare information processing across smartphones and PCs.
“Usually, when we conduct studies, we try to control as many extraneous factors as possible, but in this case, we ran field experiments because we wanted to test the differences in information processing between the two different devices in a natural way, by including all the noise and distractions that people encounter in their daily usage,” said Mengqi Liao, lead and corresponding author of the study.
The first study randomly assigned 116 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk to use their phones or PCs to view emails from credible sources, spam emails, and ‘tricky pictures’. An example of a tricky picture is one where a sign appears to read ‘Free Beer!’, but on closer inspection, it reads, ‘Free Wi-fi, Cold Beer!’. They recorded the time participants spent reviewing the information, measured their recall of details from the emails and pictures, and asked them how likely they’d be to act on the information in the emails.
In the second study, 241 university students were asked to use their smartphones or PCs to review misinformation in fake news blurbs and phishing emails. Again, the researchers recorded the time participants spent reviewing the material and if they clicked on the malicious links in phishing emails. The participants were also asked questions to gauge how they processed and interacted with the material and to indicate if they felt suspicious of the deceptive content that was presented to them.
“In our first study, we did not find many differences across the two devices in terms of information processing other than the fact that mobile users processed information faster,” Liao said. “In the second study, we focused more on deceptive content and recorded actual behavioral measures, like whether participants clicked on a malicious link. This is where we are more likely to observe detrimental effects from people processing information in a shallow manner because, with deceptive content, the consequences of people letting their guard down and being less skeptical towards misinformation can be quite dangerous.”
Data from the second study revealed that smartphone users tended to spend less time processing fake news compared to those using PCs. Phone users also reported less attention to the news compared to PC users. There were no significant differences in the perceived credibility of the news. Regarding the phishing emails, participants using smartphones spent significantly less time processing them compared to those using PCs. However, there was no difference between the groups in terms of self-reported attention or expression of suspicion toward the dodgy emails. Interestingly, PC users were more likely to click on malicious email links than phone users.
The researchers factored in habitual smartphone usage as a moderator. They found that highly habitual users were less likely to be suspicious about the phishing emails, but this tendency was amplified when they were using mobile phones to process those emails. The moderating effects of habitual usage on processing fake news were not significant.
The results may have been driven by an association of certain devices with specific types of content, such as viewing news on a smartphone and reading emails on a PC, the researchers said.
“The stance in [relation to] mobile [phones] seems to be that if you have to do more work, like go from one app to another to another, you’re less likely to pursue information further, whereas, with email on a PC, you’re in work mode and may want to explore in-depth,” Sundar said. “That is perhaps why mobile users are quick to share misinformation without bothering to first verify information, and PC users are prone to click on links that they shouldn’t be clicking.”
The researchers say their findings highlight the need for vigilance, regardless of the device that’s being used.
“It’s becoming more urgent, with all the misinformation on the internet, that we communicate these risks to users,” said Liao. “On the PC side, don’t click a new link just because it’s convenient, as it can lead to dangerous outcomes. And given that mobile phones can make you less vigilant, maybe slow down a bit and be more careful when processing information on these devices.”
The study was published in the journal New Media & Society.
Source: Penn State