Driven to Distraction

In 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information produced a study that found the average adult attention span is 8 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish? 9 seconds. What followed (in addition to numerous jokes), was an increased focus by researchers on not only how technology is influencing our lives, but also how it’s distracting us from living them.

Admittedly, the digital distractions keep adding up—social media, web-based gaming interfaces, news media, entertainment, music and lifestyle apps, the list goes on and on. And with mobile phone technology, those distractions can go with us anywhere at any time. The National Safety Council estimates one in four accidents are caused by drivers distracted on their cell phones. Office workers now check their e-mail an average of 30 times an hour. Whether at home, in the office, or in transit, distraction has become the norm. Yet we often consider these distractions just a part of multi-tasking, even though numerous studies document the negative effects of multi-tasking, particularly for young learners who are most susceptible to the appeal of media. A 2013 study by California State University–Dominguez Hills found that students didn’t make it even two minutes into their “study-time” before being interrupted by some form of media. Within 15 minutes students had already spent 65% of their time off-task, even though they were asked to focus on homework that was important. A 2014 study of college students found that in a 3-hour study session students engaged in 35 media-related off-task behaviors of 6 seconds or more, equating to almost a half-hour off task. In other studies multitasking was directly linked to lower GPAs. Researchers have repeatedly found an inverse relationship between quality of work and increase in multitasking behaviors.

The question for educators and parents alike is what happens when attention is spread across multiple fields. As schools try to integrate technology into the classroom to teach students 21st-century skills, they also increase their exposure. With the average kid engaging in somewhere between 5–7.5 hours of media a day, it’s inevitable that some of that time is spent multitasking. Given the highly interactive and stimulating format of most media, it’s easy to see how students can develop the habit of checking in (or rather out) and subsequently repeatedly engaging and disengaging in learning. A survey by Common Sense Media found half of ‘teens surveyed used media while doing homework. Yet the research would suggest that multitasking takes away from the type of analytical, deep thinking students should be engaged in when learning. The brain needs processing time—time to consider what is being read, weigh information, form opinions and challenge assumptions—time that jumping from learning to one webpage or app to another and back doesn’t allow for.

Some activities place little demand on the brain. That’s why you can walk and talk at the same time, without one task coming at the expense of another. However, when brains are engaged in more cognitively demanding activities, the wear on the brain becomes evident as a lack of working memory, poor mental organization, and the inability to filter out distractions. In studies, even people who considered themselves to be efficient multitaskers actually scored much lower than their peers focused on a single task. The thinking seems to go, more is better, but in actuality more might just be much less efficient in regards to the brain. A study out of the University of London found that multitasking impacted IQ scores, lowering the average participant’s IQ by 15 points, similar to how people who were “high” or sleep-deprived scored.

What might be most damaging isn’t even our multitasking behaviors, but rather our perception that we are effective at it. “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” says neuroscientist Earl Miller. Adding that, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re better off, that multitasking is a sign of intellectual superiority, and we’ve modeled that behavior for our children. The bottom line—turning on student’s brains, may take turning off the technology. This is an act of self-discipline which will be difficult for most of us to model or enforce. The road to successful learning is full of shortcuts and dead ends, and it’s up to us to help students learn to navigate them without being driven to distraction.

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