Are Students Addicted to Distraction?

A few years ago, something changed in class.

I customarily taught classes where my students read multiple books, wrote thoughtful reflective essays, and came to class prepared to engage in rich discussions. I’d often come to class with a few notes and the goal of being extemporaneous for the duration of the class. Every student was not a Rhodes Scholar, but the majority stayed engaged for classes up to three hours long. Even though my job was draining from facilitating the conversations in real-time, it was the most fun I had in a classroom.

Then, all of a sudden, the fun stopped.

My students slowly appeared more disengaged in the classroom. Anyone who has led a good discussion knows that “conducting a symphony” feeling that the best sessions possess. But there was no energy to facilitate around the classroom. My students completed their out-of-class preparation, but they were much more passive when they arrived in class. This wasn’t just a random draw of introverts, every successive class seemed to be more passive.

I was able to adjust to the passivity by providing questions to prepare in class with their classmates for discussion, but that’s not nearly as much fun. I want everyone reacting to each other.

Because my nature is to try to understand others instead of just pushing back, I pondered about the causes of this behavior. Generational? Did I unknowingly change?

Then, a light bulb lit up as bright as a fireball – smartphones!

The iPhone first came out in 2007.   I noticed less engagement from my students around 2012. As smartphones became more powerful, more students began showing up to class with them (and educational technology products that worked with mobile technology soon followed). At the moment, I see very few students who do not own a smartphone. Generation Z is here. Many of them have likely never heard a dial tone.

Furthermore, now that they can connect to the world with their devices, fewer of them talk to each other before class. I now enter a class to a quiet environment of faces on screens, tapping and swiping. Once class begins, students are likely fighting the urge to be on their phones.

Yet, I’m not a Luddite. Smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets have undeniable advantages, but they also have an undeniable dark side. Most of us can also attest to the coarsening of dialogue that comes from faceless or anonymous online environments. Students who spend hours on their phones receive such a massive quantity of information in small snippets that it renders deep work exceedingly difficult. These small snippets are proven to be quite addictive. In fact, researchers have found that seeking new stimuli from the mobile technology buffet creates effects on a user’s dopamine level similar to other pleasurable activities.

While my assertions are anecdotal, a relatively quick search revealed both academic and pop-psychology writings that coincide with my experiences.

Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business critiqued television’s role in reducing the depth of discourse. His arguments are timeless. Any discussion of how modern media affects students must include this book.

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains chronicles the history of information technology (yes, at one point people were concerned about what those horrible books would do to oral communication) as well as the author’s experiences with technology’s effect on his ability to concentrate.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World argues for proactively managing phones or they will manage you. Some of his suggestions are controversial (e.g. quitting social media), but he argues that in order for people to be productive, they must not allow distractions to sap their willpower. Newport backs up his claims by detailing how, as a professor of computer science, he doubled his publications while never working crazy hours.

Finally, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self by “Note to Self” podcast host Manoush Zomorodi puts forth the idea that we should enforce more boredom on our lives because that boredom can stimulate creative energy in our brains. Similar to the other authors, Zomorodi used her own productivity struggles as the onus for her “Bored and Brilliant Challenge” where people intentionally follow steps that allow for more time to productively space out.

It is extremely difficult for even the best in-class teachers to compete with the lure of smartphones.

I can certainly create a policy to keep phones out of the classroom. But that does not address the potential “rewiring of my students’ brains” from prolonged skimming and scrolling. Furthermore, it’s hard to ask students to do something that professors do not have a handle on. A casual look at faculty meetings will give you all the evidence you need. Maybe I’m too nice, but I do not think I can discipline my way back to the previous levels of engagement.

Professors need to be mindful of how that technology affects students – and to critically evaluate new developments.

While cliché, technology is only getting more powerful.

Electronic textbooks are a great example of a medium that deserves a deeper look. As a way to give students cheaper options for textbooks (separate rant topic), book reps push the electronic versions of those texts. Students can read the entire book on their devices, highlight electronically and complete online study modules. This sounds good in theory – students love their technology so let’s give them their books in their preferred environment – in practice, my students tell me they don’t want electronic texts. They prefer the tactile sensation of a physical book, even if they readily admit to shunning reading for pleasure. For the ones that do prefer reading on devices, ebooks put students one click away from the rabbit hole of endless procrastination, which could affect content retention. This is not just speculation. Even though electronic reading is relatively new compared to paper, there is research that reports lower comprehension from screen reading.

Even with constant reminders of how the satirical dark comedy Idiocracy seems like a documentary, there is hope that students are not completely beholden to technology’s mind-numbing effects. Through a few writing assignments in my classes, I’ve seen students admit to not wanting to be online as much as they are, but they get hooked because the draw is so powerful. As I’ve overheard a few times, the word “user” is quite appropriate for technology addicts.

Students need reeducation in deep work. For some, they may need an introduction. Rather than complaining about the changes I’ve seen, I’ve accepted the current climate as a challenge. I hope I’m not alone in this endeavor.

Now if you will excuse me, I must go. I have to check my email.

  • Bert

    Prf. Fertig,

    “It is extremely difficult for even the best in-class teachers to compete with the lure of smartphones.” but “it’s hard to ask students to do something that professors do not have a handle on.”

    So what? Outlaw them being on or even being out of their bags in your class (read somewhere that just having an OFF phone out nearby reduces concentration by at least 25%). And announce this on day one so those who can’t cotton either your authoritarianism or being away from their phones, can drop your class. For those who stay you’ll be doing them a favor and providing, even if you are an island, an opportunity for some “counter-rewiring.”

    To paraphrase the Beasty Boys, “You’ve got to fight, for your right, to have fun!”… in your class again! Your students will thank you. Some, maybe “eventually,” but your active learners will love you NOW. They WANT to be active NOW and they are there ready and waiting!



    PS: my kid goes to a classical school where phones and laptops/screens are banned in class (they can use them and do outside of class). My kid really enjoys their, “Harkness Table,” discussions which I’m pretty sure line up with your idea of a fun class.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I’m a big fan of Neil Postman and his ideas, so I appreciated this thoughtful article.

    It is not just that “now [students] can connect to the world with their devices,” they (and everyone else over a certain age) connect to the the world almost exclusively THROUGH devices. Rather than simply gathering information about the world with the device, the individual cognitive framework has come to be mediated by smart phones.

    And I would argue that we need to look carefully at the ways in which human cognition itself has become an extension of the “media.” As Marshall McLuhan said, The Medium is the Message. The question is not just “how does this impact education,” but “what does this mean for human culture and society?”

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Prompted by Jenna’s unexpected upvote, I wanted expand with this afterthought.

      Smartphones, distractions and obstacles to learning, etc., can mostly be thought of as part of the “sociology of education,” but really the underlying issue belongs to the “sociology of knowledge” because of the inter-generational aspects of the transfer of knowledge, transfer of skills, and the transfer of wealth between generations.

      As described in the article, negative views of education that point out what is *not* happening in school have much in common with “generation gap” discussions — which, from the viewpoint of frustrated educators, looks like a “war between generations.” (Am I not right?)

      But, as recently pointed out by Ruby Payne, it only takes three generations to move from high-level success to abject poverty; in other words, without successive transfers between generations, all previous, hard-won social and economic gains are easily lost. Payne has expanded upon and improved the earlier model of Karl Mannheim, the first thinker to deal with the inter-generational problem from a sociological perspective. I continue to be mystified by the wholesale rejection of Ruby Payne’s ideas by academia — then why don’t they also reject Mannheim? The transfer of skills and knowledge from one generation to the next (i.e., the transition into adulthood) is core and central, both for sociology and for educational models of all kinds.

      Take for example the underlying demographics of the Second Awakening. An under-rated dissertation by Davidson pointed out empirically that the participants were invariably youth, the younger generation was its target. As a response to the threats of industrialization, the rise of wage labor, the decline of apprenticeship, and the Yankee diaspora, the Second Awakening was a religio-social movement aimed at equipping youth for dealing with the massive technological and social changes that society faced. (Is it mere coincidence that political “parties” emerged at about the same time, with similar revival-type quasi-religious characteristics? I think not. Our present day acrimony can be traced back to the earlier rituals that were successful in developing what Durkheim called “moral solidarity.”)

      Noah Porter’s moral societies, the YMCA and other groups appeared at the same time, all to ensure successful transitions into adulthood. Clergy, like Charles Grandison Finney, the most famous Second Awakening revivalist, became college presidents that could be relied upon to guide the moral compass of youth in preparation for the assumption of their adult roles. Of course, higher education has now successfully supplanted these earlier social institutions, for better or for worse.

      • Thank you for elaborating. I plan to look up Ruby Payne right after I finish this comment.

        I think much more work needs to be done on what you call the “sociology of knowledge.” There’s a lot of good research on early childhood education. (We know, for example, how children best learn language and learn to read.) But as far as I can tell, there is very little about how adults or near-adults learn. Or, to the extent that research is available, it very rarely moves out of the pure cognitive science realm into applied research or even use in society.

        At the very least, this is an area in which I need to do a lot more reading!

    • redweather

      While I was still teaching, and after I had become concerned that my students’ phones were distracting them from their education, I instituted a simple plan. If they accessed their phones during class they would lose 2 points from their grade in the class each time this happened. I justified this by maintaining that cellphone use is per se distracting to the learning environment.

      But they had another option available to them. They could relinquish their phones at the beginning of each class and earn extra credit points as long as they also adhered to my attendance policy. During my last three years in the classroom, every group of students I taught opted for the second option.

      I have no empirical data showing that student learning outcomes improved. I simply wanted students to realize that they could survive for an hour and fifteen minutes twice a week without monitoring their phones. Some students, although I didn’t keep track of the number, told me they found it easier to concentrate in class when their phone was out of reach. And not one student phone was lost or misappropriated.

  • FC

    Smartphones are only a part of the problem, as the education “establishment” has redefined (as in “lowered”) the expectations for students in their charge. The students literally run most universities. Example:

    I was a guest speaker multiple times to seniors in a business class at a major university. The purpose was to introduce them to the world of high-tech start-ups, the risks, raising capital, and all the pains of building a business to where it was financially self-sustaining.

    During the introduction, I explained that the start-ups I worked for all had rules about meetings: publish and distribute the agenda: be on-time ($20 into the pot if you’re late), turn off your cellphone ($20 if it rings during the meeting) and no laptops. I was told by the professor “we cannot do that! There is not any attendance requirement, and we cannot require the students to turn off their phones or their laptops.”

    One of the critical elements in building a business is to be able to define and demonstrate the value to a client by engaging in a business relationship. If a university has no requirement whatsoever that (a) a student must be in attendance, and (b) when in class, to participate, then why are they here? If one can “pass” a class without a minimum level of attendance and/or participation, then why have the class?

    I also question the value proposition of any university, and more importantly the professor, if they students have nor requirement to even attend class. The university is effectively a bank–they take your money, process the transaction, and delivery a receipt (a diploma).

    This only serves to reinforce the value proposition for online degree programs, and many brick and mortar colleges and universities really have little reason to exist. (And don’t even get me started on the student who submitted a rap song, in lieu of his application essay, and was eventually accepted to an Ivy League school. Go figure.)

    If you don’t have any standards, then anything is acceptable–but you have little (zero) chance of surviving in the business (real) world.

  • redweather

    People might be finally wising up to the negative effects of cell phones . . . if they weren’t so distracted by them.