Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Distracted Student Mind-Enhancing Its Focus and Attention

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Distracted Student Mind-Enhancing Its Focus and Attention

Article excerpt

Due to the constant temptation to check their smartphones, today's students are spending less time focused on their schoolwork, taking longer to complete assignments, and feeling more stressed in the process. Just how big of a problem is digital distraction, and how can educators respond?

For more than three decades, I've studied the psychological effects associated with the introduction of new digital technologies. Over that time, my research team and I have watched Americans move from an initial fear of computers to a state of wary acceptance to eager adaptation to what has become more or less an obsession with the tiny devices we now carry in our purses and pockets.

What does this obsession mean for today's students? Recent research findings are sobering:

* Typically, college students unlock their phones 50 times a day, using them for close to 4 1/2 hours out of every 24-hour cycle. Put another way, they check their phones every 15 minutes--all day long (and sometimes all night)--and they look at them for about five minutes each time.

* Teenagers are almost always attempting to multitask, even when they know full well that they cannot do so effectively.

* When teenagers have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious (and visibly agitated within just a few minutes).

* The average adolescent or young adult finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time; when forced to do so, they will spend at least five of those minutes in a state of distraction.

How did we get to where we are today?

Waves of technology keep crashing upon us

In 1980, the renowned futurist Alvin Toffler observed that new technologies have rolled in like a series of overlapping "waves," each moving at a much greater speed than the previous one: First came a 3,000-year wave of agricultural technologies; then came a 300-year wave of industrial technologies; then (at the time of his writing) came a wave of computer technologies, which he expected to last for about 30 years before some other wave would come along, lasting for perhaps as little as three years if the trend continued (Toffler, 1981, 1990).

Toffler's theory is certainly debatable, but the image of waves crashing faster and faster onto shore does seem to capture the recent experience of assimilating new technologies into our lives. For example, consider how many decades it took for wired telephones to fully penetrate American society. Cell phones took hold much more quickly,

but even so, it took a couple of decades before cell phone use reached 50 million users (the benchmark for penetrating society, according to consumer scientists). Then came the World Wide Web, which hit 50 million users in just four years. More recently, MySpace took 2.5 years to do so, Facebook did it in two years, YouTube took just a single year, and Instagram hit the mark in a matter of months. If that seems fast, consider that both Angry Birds and Pokemon GO took just one month to garner 50 million users. (See Figure 1.)

At this point, new technologies rise and fall so quickly that it hardly seems right to describe them as waves at all--more appropriate to call them wavelets --though each one has the power to change our lives in profound ways: The web put the world at our fingertips and allowed us to connect with people anywhere in the world; social media spawned dozens of web-based communication systems; and the smartphone (which really "changed everything," said Steve Jobs) put a computer, a TV, a music player, and the entire web into our pockets. Coming next could be multiple wavelets of implantable technology, featuring devices that monitor, assess, and assist our biological functions.

The question is, what does this increasingly rapid influx of media and technologies do to us mentally, physically, and neurologically? More specifically--and as the neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and I have recently explored in our book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World--as young people are buffeted by one new communications technology after another, what happens to their ability to focus on the present? …

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