Today’s students are living in a world with constant digital distractions vying for their attention. The endless badgering of pings, alerts and notifications can have a serious impact on students’ ability to focus and learn. The proliferation of smartphones and digital technologies such as laptops, smartwatches, gaming consoles and tablets has ushered in an era of unprecedented connectivity. A level of connectivity that just years ago would have seemed inconceivable, but today feels like it’s indispensable, especially for our digitally-enabled students.
I’m hearing calls crescendo from both parents and teachers who are concerned that digital distractions are having a negative impact on students’ attention. They’re observing students who are learning and studying with an array of distractions that are fracturing their attention. A study from the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney in April 2021 found that 83% of parents think their children are negatively distracted by digital technologies (and interestingly 90% think that digital devices negatively distract them)1.
I think if we’re really honest, as adults we feel the costs of digital distractions too (tell me you’re not guilty of constantly nibbling on your email inbox, hearing the hum of calendar reminders and dealing with the barrage of SMS alerts that flash on your phone throughout the day?) However, we see it so tangibly with young people as they dance between multiple browsers as they complete their online homework, whilst listening to music, messaging friends on their smartphone, all whilst sporadically checking their DMs on social media.
Attention management= the SUPERSKILL of the 21st Century
Learning how to orient, direct and control your attention is a paramount skill that today’s children and teens must acquire if they’re to thrive in a digital world that’s been engineered to divert and captivate their attention. And it’s a skill that can be cultivated and explicitly taught. It’s not a skill that we hope students incidentally acquire.
As Tristan Harris, ex-Google Design Ethicist suggests in his TED talk, that the goal of tech companies that dominate the tech world is the “race for our attention.” Our students are living and growing up in a digital world, in the attention economy. Hence, cultivating skills to manage and control their attention must be a priority amongst educators and families (both play a critical role in developing these skills).
If they can’t focus, are phone bans the solution? No
’Now whilst some countries, states and school districts have implemented ‘phone bans’ in an attempt to solve or at least ameliorate the distraction problem in classrooms, this solution bypasses the opportunity to teach today’s students vital skills in terms of managing their attention. This is a critical life skill. I work extensively in the corporate sector with both small and large organisations and they’re anecdotally telling me that they’re concerned by young recruits’ ‘high distractibility factor’.
Technology is here to stay and is and will continue to be an integral part of young people’s lives for both learning and leisure. We must teach them how to leverage the benefits the digital world has to offer them (connection, access to content, new ways of communicating and creating content), but also how vital it is for them to learn how to control their focus.
It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss the educational merits or psychological impacts of phone bans on students’ learning and wellbeing. You can read more here and here if you’re interested to hear more about the validity and research-basis behind school-wide, mandated phone bans.
From my experience, students respond favorably to understanding why they’re particularly vulnerable to digital distractions and find it hard to focus online (especially when you explain the neuroscience and psychology behind what’s happening in their brains- which is what I do in one of the student workshops I deliver in schools). I’m also hosting a webinar on 9th June called Attention Please! Where I’ll be helping parents and educators better understand why young people find the online world so distracting (there’s science to explain why they can spend four hours on Fortnite, but not focus for four minutes on their physics work) and providing a menu of simple strategies and solutions (that don’t involve blanket phone bans) to help students bolster their focus in a distracting, digital world.
Three Super-Simple Strategies to Boost Focus
I believe our focus should be on teaching students how they can manage the digital disruptions that fracture their attention (pardon the pun). As I said earlier, this involved both teachers, parents and students assuming an active role. Below are three (out of a long list) of strategies that students can deploy to help optimise their focus when learning and/or studying online.
1. Music- research has confirmed that listening to music can help students to focus2. The brain is constantly scanning the environment for cues, or mental triggers to prepare for what tasks it should be performing. Any type of sensory input can be a cognitive trigger (a sound, a smell, or an object). Deliberately assigning a cognitive trigger, like music, can shift the brain into a focused state. Music can have a positive impact on focus because it can have an arousal effect by improving a student’s emotional state.
Listening to music can not only activate the brain to enter a focussed state by helping students to ‘zone in’, but can also have the added benefit of blocking out distracting intelligible speech in the background that has also proven to be distracting. The caveat is that music must be soft, slow (imitate the resting heartbeat of around 50-80 beats per minute as it puts the brain in an alpha state that helps focus ) and familiar lyrics (or the opposite, where they are completely unfamiliar with the language so that their brain isn’t trying to decipher lyrics). Students should create and use a consistent playlist for study/homework as distinct from their everyday consumption.
Whilst there are plenty of playlists that can be accessed on music and video sharing platforms, there are also commercial options such as Focus @ Will
2. Bundle Your Notifications– The use of metrics in notification bubbles, the design principle that alerts and notifications are thrust at us (and not initiated or controlled by us) and the fact that the notification bubble is typically red (a colour psychologically associated with urgency and danger) combine to make the online world disruptive and compelling. Put simply, notifications trick our brain into thinking they’re urgent and important through the use of colour, sound and physical vibrations.
The digital technologies that students use in their leisure time, such as gaming, social media and communication tools have been developed by teams of psychologists, neuroscientists and software engineers to be appealing and to hijack our attention. You can read more about how notifications lure us in and divert our attention here.
To combat this disruptive effect, we need to teach students to (i) disable any non-essential notifications and (ii) to batch/bundle desired notifications and (iii) only have essential notifications turned on constantly. With YouTube and many other social media platforms and communication tools you now have far more control over how frequently these push notifications come to you and distract you. The set up to bundle your notifications is unique to each operating system but a quick Google search for ‘customized group notifications’ for iOS devices and ‘bundled notifications’ for Android devices should help. You basically want to customise your notification preferences by each app. So a student may elect to receive their YouTube notifications bundled at 8pm, after they’ve had soccer practice, eaten dinner and done their homework. This would stop the sporadic spray of notifications trickling in during the day.
3. Proximity strategy– just seeing your phone (or gaming console, or tablet) can be a psychological trigger and can distract you. Our brains have often associated the device with a positive experience and so seeing it in your line of sight can tempt you away from the focused work you’re supposed to be doing and students can easily end up down a digital rabbit hole. Studies reveal there’s a decrement in our performance when we see our phones.3 Researchers from the University of Texas in Austin found a 10% decline in cognitive performance when a smartphone was in close proximity. The researchers suggested,”The mere presence of a smartphone reduces brain power, even if it’s turned over and even if it’s off.” Researchers refer to this as “smartphone-induced ‘brain drain’”, whereby having your phone on your desk had a small but statistically significant impairment on individuals’ cognitive capacity.
So a simple solution is for students to put their phones (or gaming consoles) out of sight whilst studying, or completing homework so they’re not tempted to reach for it, when they hit a ‘stuck point’ on their school work (and reach for their phone to give them a dopamine hit). This may be a challenging undertaking for some students initially, so starting with small intervals and giving students what Professor Larry Rosen calls a ‘tech check in’ break, whereby students work for an agreed sustained time period and then have a quick tech check-in period and then resume their study/homework.
The three tips above are a sample of the strategies I’ll be sharing in an upcoming webinar called Attention Please! I’m hosting a webinar for parents and educators on 9th June where I’ll explain the science and the solutions to helping today’s students focus in an age of digital distractions. You can find out more about the webinar here.
1 Graham, A., & Sahlberg, P (2021). Growing Up Digital Australia: Phase 2 technical report. Gonski Institute for Education. UNSW, Sydney.
2 Baker, Mitzi. “Music Moves Brain to Pay Attention.” Stanford School of Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, 01 Aug. 2007. Web. 03 Apr. 2014.
Padmasiri, M. D., & Dhammika, K. A. S. (2014). The effect of music listening on work performance: a case study of Sri Lanka. International journal of scientific & technology research, 3(5), 118-122.
3 Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154
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