Screaming for silence: the damaging and antisocial effect of loud ringtones on others’ study

screaming infant photoImagine if you will that you are riding in a train carriage (or a car, or a  plane) and there is a crying baby a scant few seats away.  Now imagine that babies came with a convenient switch that could stop them screaming and instead cause them softly and silently to vibrate instead to draw their parents’ attention.  Now imagine the parent deciding they would rather indulge the entire carriage to howling noise rather than throw that switch because putting baby into silent mode is just too much bother for them.  Much better that you suffer instead. I imagine you would be seriously upset at them.

Mobile phones are similar to teething tots, only phones really do have a silent mode.  The irresistible question then is why some people still don’t use it?  There is evidence to suggest that disruptions caused by ringing phones and other loud distractions are not just annoying but may actually have a disruptive effect on others’ learning.  Shelton (2009) found that a mobile phone ringing loudly for 30 seconds in the middle of a psychology lecture reduced student recall of the lecture content afterwards by 25%.  Clearly making a sustained, if brief, racket disrupts the concentration of all around long after the disruption ends.

So please, turn down the ringer volume and double-check it is in silent mode before stepping foot in the second floor Individual Silent Study Zone.  You wouldn’t carry a screaming infant round with you, so please don’t leave your phone to ring and wreck the studies of everyone else within earshot.

I realise I am ‘preaching to the choir’ here but the good thing about blog posts is they are easily shared to Facebook, Twitter and wider afield (the links to each article are permalinks – easy to share anywhere you please.  Oh, and keep calm and carry on texting security.


Thanks to the student who pointed us to this tidbit of research – we welcome scholarly insights, but please drop them in our Online Suggestion Box or email them to us rather than leaving notices out yourselves – they tend to get swept to the floors by the very people they are aimed at, probably as they get up to take a call in the silent zone. Oh, and we found another paper (and then lost it again) that suggested the impact was temporary and that repeated interruptions have successively less impact, so it is not all bad news for the frequently interrupted.  Just very, very annoying.  We are looking into this problem seriously to see what else can be done and hope to have found more effective ways of handling it in the near future.  In the meantime, feel free to make like a librarian and “Shhh!” any nearby troublemakers.


Shelton, J. T., Elliott, E. M., Eaves, S. D., & Exner, A. L. (2009).  The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29 (4), 513-521.


Photo by sean dreilinger

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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