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Recently my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for a mere 15 minutes in their natural environments. We were interested in whether they could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.
"The results were startling. First, these students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology. [By the way, other researchers have found similar attention spans with computer programmers and medical students."
"The major culprit: their smartphone and their laptop were providing constant interruptions. We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student. Not surprisingly those who stayed on task longer and had study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them. One additional result stunned us: If they checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period they were worse students. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough."
So, what was going on with these students? We have asked thousands of students this exact question and what we hear is that when alerted by a beep, a vibration or a flashing image they feel compelled or drawn to attend to that distraction. However, they also tell us that even without the sensory reminder they are constantly thinking internally, “I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post” or “I wonder if anyone responded to my text message I sent 5 minutes ago” or even “I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.”
Neuroscience is just now starting to emerge as a means of studying the impact of technology on the brain. Consider these recent study results:
-Video game players show more volume in brain areas where risk and reward are processed but also less activity in areas dealing with emotional regulation and aggression PLUS more dopamine, which parallels what happens in an addict’s brain.
-Distracted brains show specific regions that are activated in the brain and more distractions tends to parallel more activity.
-Chinese youth who were addicted to the Internet showed more white matter in the areas of emotion, attention and control but also showed disrupted nerve cell connections in other areas of the brain.
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 may be texting them during the videotape and to answer our text messages. In fact, one-third did not get a text message from us, one-third got four texts during the 30-minute video and the other third got eight texts, enough, we guessed, to make them not be able to concentrate on the video.
How do we teach focus in a world that is constantly drawing our focus elsewhere? One idea is to use “technology breaks” where you check your phone, the web, whatever, for a minute or two and then turn the phone to silent, the computer screen off and “focus” on work or conversation or any non-technological activity for, say 15 minutes, and then take a 1-2 minute tech break followed by more focus times and more tech breaks. The trick is to gradually lengthen the focus time to teach yourself (and your kids) how to focus for longer periods of time without being distracted. I have teachers using this in classrooms, parents using it during dinner and bosses using tech breaks during meetings with great success. So far, though, the best we can get is about 30 minutes of focus.
Originally posted by Afterthought
reply to post by getreadyalready
From my experience as a 9th grade teacher, most kids can't even sit still or concentrate long enough to get through an IQ or knowledge assessment test. Their thoughts are always wandering and keeping on task is a real challenge.
Every fiber in my being wants to blame the TV and fast, colorful commercials for children's shortening attention spans.
So, why is a slower form of communication the preferred method?
but I made a personal, conscious effort to begin paying attention to names of music artists, movie actors, and I began to watch headlines in the paper and watch the evening news.
but what about their overall knowledge and overall learning ability? What about their longterm mental acuity? What about future afflictions such as Alzheimers? What about driving records or success in careers?
What if the multi-tasking is making them better equipped to deal with the real world we live in, better socially equipped to converse and interview well, and better at handling a life full of constant distractions?
Regarding 9th grade mentality, the opposite sex is not even a factor here. They simply don't want to be forced to pay attention to anything that is being taught to them most of the time. They want to listen to their iPod, text on their phones, doodle, or daydream. It's just a matter of what they would rather do instead of what they're being expected to do. It seems as though most students do have an aversion to authority figures. I also had this growing up and still do, but I always wanted to do well on tests. Most students don't care about them anymore.
Maybe the day will come where we are all connected and can read each other's thoughts, either via ESP or the ability to have our thoughts texted or written/expressed immediately as they arise, becoming our new way of communicating.