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October 20, 2014

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Driven to distraction: Our wired generation

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Dominguez Hills, Calif. -- A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report surveyed 2,462 middle school and high school advanced placement and national writing project teachers and concluded: “Overwhelming majorities agree with the assertions that today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans, and today’s students are too ‘plugged in’ and need more time away from their digital technologies.” Two-thirds of the respondents agree with the notion that today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.

Mind you, we are talking about teachers who typically teach the best and brightest students and not those who we would generally think of as highly distractible.

Thousands of students tell us that when alerted by a beep, a vibration or a flashing image, they feel compelled or drawn to that stimulus. However, they also tell us that even without the sensory intrusions, they are constantly being distracted internally by thoughts such as, “I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post” or “I wonder if my friend responded to the text message I sent five minutes ago” or even “I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.” Three-fourths of teens and young adults check their devices every 15 minutes or less and if not allowed to do so get highly anxious. And anxiety inhibits learning.

I am convinced that learning to live with both internal and external distractions is all about teaching the concept of focus. In psychology, we refer to the ability to understand when you need to focus and when it is not necessary to do so as “metacognition,” or knowing how your brain functions. In one recent study, we found a perfect demonstration of metacognition, albeit totally by accident. In this study, we showed a video in several psychology courses, which was followed by a graded test.

Students were told that we might be texting them during the videotape and to answer our text messages. In fact, one-third did not get a text message, one-third got four texts during the 30-minute video, and the other third got eight texts — enough, we guessed, to distract them and make them unable to concentrate on the video. One other wrinkle was that we timed the text messages to occur when important material was being shown on the videotape that was going to be tested later.

We were right that the students who got eight texts did worse — they averaged a D on the test — but the students who received four texts and the students who did not receive a text message during the video got a C on our test. However, a mistake in our instructions told us more about what was going on inside the students’ heads when the text arrived. We told students to reply to our text messages but we did not tell them when to reply. Those students who manifested a knee-jerk reaction to their vibrating phone and answered our texts immediately were the ones who got the lower test grades. Those few students who opted to wait a few minutes to respond got the highest scores in the class.

After the study, when asked why they did not respond immediately, they told us that they were waiting for a time when the videotape material seemed less important and not likely to be on the test. Those students were using their metacognitive skills to decide when was a good time to be distracted and when it was important to focus.

How do we teach focus in a world that is constantly drawing our attention elsewhere? One strategy that we are using in classrooms around the world is called “technology breaks.” Here’s how it works: In many classrooms, students are allowed to use their smartphones, tablets or laptops as tools to search the Web, access social media or perform other activities that promote learning. In such classrooms, teachers often report that in between times that students are using their devices for schoolwork, they are checking their email and text messages, tweeting or accessing social media.

A tech break starts with the teacher asking all students to check their texts, the Web, Facebook, whatever, for a minute and then turn the device on silent and place it upside down on the desk in plain sight and focus on classroom work for 15 minutes. Placing the device face down can prohibit external distractions from vibrations and flashing alerts and provides a signal to the brain that there is no need to be internally distracted since an opportunity to “check in” will be coming soon.

At the end of the 15-minute focus time, the teacher declares a tech break and the students take another minute to check in with their virtual worlds, followed by more focus times and more tech breaks. The trick is to gradually lengthen the time between tech breaks. I have teachers using this in classrooms, parents using it at the dinner table or at a restaurant, and bosses using tech breaks during meetings with great success. So far, though, the best we can get is about 30 minutes of focus, thanks to Steve Jobs (and others) for making such alluring, distracting technologies.

Technology is not going to disappear from our world. In fact, it is only going to get more appealing as screens become sharper, videos become clearer and touch screens become the norm, all of which attract our sensory system and beckon us to pay attention to them rather than schoolwork or the people in front of us.

Increasing tech breaks can be used to train the brain to focus without the worry and anxiety about what we might be missing in our virtual social world.

Larry Rosen is professor of psychology at California State University. He wrote this for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

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