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Why it's hard to focus online

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Why it’s hard for kids & teens to focus online

The global health pandemic forced many students into remote, online learning. Whilst many students initially rejoiced at the idea of learning at home on their devices (sometimes in their PJs), they soon discovered that online learning was both exhausting and very different to learning at school, in-person. One of the chief things students have struggled with is how to stay focused while learning online. This problem will continue whether students are back learning in a classroom (often with digital technologies), or if they continue to learn or study in a remote capacity.

So why do students find it hard to pay attention online? The online world is like a sensory smorgasbord, with so much vying for students’ attention.  Let’s be honest, as adults, we find it hard to resist the lure of digital distractions- can you ignore your phone when it rings or your inbox when you hear it humming in the background? I didn’t think so. In fact, research tells us that the average knowledge worker now responds to emails within 6 minutes!

Students find it hard to pay attention during the Zoom class call, when they see their teacher’s pet in the background, or their classmate’s younger sibling doing silly things in the background. Their attention is easily diverted online, when there are so many digital distractions that hijack their attention- they start off completing their online trigonometry quiz, when their phone receives a notification, or they hit a ‘stuck point’ in the quiz and all of a sudden they’re opening another web browser and doing a quick check on the YouTube channels they subscribe to.

Many parents and teachers are concerned about students’ waning attention spans. And rightly so. Most of us accept that technology is integral to students’ learning and leisure, but we also worry about the potential pitfalls to their learning (and wellbeing) if their attention is fractured online. Having spoken to thousands of parents and educators over the past few years I‘ve found it helps to understand why children and teens are vulnerable to digital distractions (it’s not all their fault- there’s some compelling neuroscientific explanations and persuasive design principles at play to explain why their focus is disrupted online) and learn a couple of simple strategies to optimise their focus, so they can continue to learn online without always being side-tracked.

Why students’ find it hard to pay attention online-

// Inability to self-regulate the part of the brain that helps students with self-regulation, the prefrontal cortex is still under development in children and adolescents. In fact, research suggests that this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until somewhere in their 20s). This is why you shouldn’t expect your teen to spend three hours on their gaming console and then say, “That was a sufficient amount of time playing. I’ll happily switch off my device and go and take the dog for a walk.” It’s not going to happen.

This inability to regulate their behaviour is compounded by the fact that when our kids are online their brains have usually associated this as a pleasurable experience (especially their leisure pursuits). So their brains are often releasing dopamine online (the pleasure neurotransmitter). The problem with dopamine is that it floods the prefrontal cortex of the brain. So their limited capacity to manage their impulses and regulate their behaviour is compromised because dopamine hijacks their logical, regulatory part of their brain. So even if they ‘know’ they shouldn’t close their spelling app and open YouTube, their capacity to moderate this behaviour is compromised online.

// Persuasive design techniques there are a multitude of deliberate design techniques that tech companies have deployed to make the online world, especially the leisure activities our kids and teens enjoy, psychologically appealing. Two of the chief techniques that make the online world enticing for our kids and teens is the (i) absence of stopping cues and (ii) use of colour and metrics. 

The online world is a bottomless bowl. There are no endpoints. Thanks to the autoplay feature on YouTube and many streaming services and the ability to constantly refresh social media, and reach new levels in multiplayer video games, our young people experience the ‘state of insufficiency’. They never feel complete or done. So when they’re learning online, there’s a nagging sense that there is something on YouTube to watch, or an essential social media post to look at.

The choice of colours on app icons and the use of metrics to indicate unread notifications also entice students to succumb to distractions. The fact that they can see that they have 15 unread notifications in a red bubble (red is a strategic choice because it’s associated with danger and urgency), makes it hard for them to stay focused on the science animation they’re supposed to be watching. The use of metrics is a tangible indicator of incomplete activities vying for their attention. (This also may explain why we find email so compelling.)

Three simple strategies to reduce digital distractions-

// Batch, don’t disable alerts and notifications- research with adults indicated that disabling all notifications isn’t the ideal solution to managing digital distractions.  A 2019 study found that having a distinct schedule for notifications was the best option (as compared to no notifications, or having them come in throughout the day). You can read more here about this strategy. 

// Feed their brains Don’t let students’ brains get ‘hangry’ or thirsty. The brain requires 20% of our body’s daily energy supply. The prefrontal cortex requires the most metabolic fuel in the brain- it’s a bit like a petrol-guzzling car: it burns through fuel quickly. Given that this part of the brain is required to help our kids stay focused, it’s essential that they’re eating regularly and the right types of foods and also staying hydrated. If they’re not well-fuelled their brains will lack the energy they require to stay focused.  

// Maximise their windows I often say, “The basics work if you work the basics.” One of the easiest ways for students to avoid digital distractions, is to maximise the windows they’re using. If they’re using a browser, select the full-screen option so their browser takes up the whole screen. Avoiding the tempting icons at the bottom of the screen will reduce the likelihood that they’ll jump into another application when they hit a stuck point with their online learning.

Understanding why students find it hard to pay attention online is one of the five topics I’ll be tackling in an express webinar I’ll be hosting on 28th May called Helping Kids & Teens Deal With Digital Overload. I’ll help you understand the impact that their extra tech-time during isolation may have had on their health, wellbeing and learning and arm you with simple, science-backed solutions to develop healthy digital behaviours as they transition back to regular routines.  Learn easy ways to ‘wean the screen’ as they return to school.

 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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