Chris Chen’s new research examines information processing on mobile phones vs. PCs

The assistant professor of communication design coauthored a new paper in New Media & Society, a peer-reviewed academic journal covering the field of communications.

Chris (Cheng) Chen, an assistant professor in the Communication Design Department, coauthored a new journal article published in New Media & Society, examining if people process information differently on mobile phones compared to personal computers.

Chris (Cheng) Chen

Titled “Less vigilant in the mobile era? A comparison of information processing on mobile phones and personal computers,” the Nov. 30 article is based on two online field experiments led by Chen and her collaborators, Mengqi Liao and S. Shyam Sundar of Pennsylvania State University, and Jinping Wang of the University of Florida.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to either use their mobile phones or personal computers to check out emails. According to the researchers, individuals using mobile phones were faster at it — they spent less time reading their emails than the PC users. Chen and her colleagues conducted a follow-up study to validate their findings, focusing on tricky online content, such as phishing emails.

“We found that those who use their mobile phones habitually were less careful and vigilant about deceptive information,” Chen said. “Unexpectedly, PC users were more likely to click malicious links on phishing emails.”

Where did the research topic originate? From personal experience, explained Chen, noting her own daily use of mobile phones to access mountains of information and content – like so many in today’s hyper-connected world.

“I am keen to explore the impact of digital devices on our information processing,” she said. “Does using mobile phones result in faster information processing, increased attention, and improved memorization compared to using PCs? Furthermore, is our vulnerability to deceptive content higher when accessing it on mobile phones as opposed to PCs? Answering this question is very important given the rise of spam emails, misinformation, and fake news in society.”

Chen explained that her research journey commenced with a broad investigation into the impact of devices – mobile phones versus PCs – on information processing in Study 1. Subsequently, they proposed a specific hypothesis suggesting that habitual mobile phone users were more inclined to process information superficially compared to PC users. According to Chen, the data supported their hypothesis, highlighting a distinctive processing pattern.

“Interestingly, our findings revealed a counterintuitive aspect: PC users displayed a susceptibility to clicking malicious links in phishing emails, even more so than mobile phone users,” she said. “This indicates that the type of device alone cannot serve as a safeguard against misinformation. To fortify against misinformation, enhancing users’ digital literacy and implementing just-in-time alerts for potential spam emails emerge as more effective strategies. A noteworthy example is Elon University’s use of [EXT] to emphasize the email source, showcasing a promising intervention strategy.”

Since joining Elon’s faculty in 2022, Chen has regularly published research tied to her interest in social and psychological effects of new media technologies, with a focus on mobile media and artificial intelligence (AI).

During that span, Chen has examined the habitual and problematic use of Instagram, coauthored an article looking at why individuals use automated features, published research exploring algorithmic bias and trust in artificial intelligence, and explored why individuals use automated features like autocorrect on iPhone, Smart Reply on Gmail, and autoplay on YouTube.

New Media & Society is a peer-reviewed international journal that provides an interdisciplinary forum for the examination of the social dynamics of media and information change. The journal has a five-year impact factor of 6.9 and ranked seven out of 96 in Communication (SSCI).