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digital distraction
Students in a marketing course at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island check their phones before class begins. To tame classroom distraction, their professor uses Flipd, an app that locks students out of their phones during class. Credit: Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

CARSON, Calif. — At Cal State Dominguez Hills, the low November sun had faded to dusk when Professor Toddy Eames called for a break in the middle of a nearly three-hour screenwriting class.

“Fifteen minutes!” she announced as her students stood, stretched or ambled to the door. “You can take out your phones,” she added, but most students were already scrolling through the texts, emails, snapchats and other postings that had piled up during an hour of mandated tech abstinence.

Since the fall of 2016, the communications department at Dominguez Hills has banned smartphones, laptops and other personal technology in every classroom — with grade deductions for violations — except for teacher-guided use and “tech breaks” during longer classes such as Eames’s.

The policy was spearheaded by the department chair, Nancy Cheever, who is part of a team at the university investigating digital distraction, an issue that, for many teachers, has graduated from a nuisance into a serious threat to learning.

In K-12 and college classrooms across the country, some educators are enacting at least partial device bans, some are advocating for teaching style changes (fewer lectures, for example) and still others are seeking help from the technology itself. There’s little consensus, except that the peril of digital distraction neither starts nor ends in school, and learning to tame our tech obsession is a new and vital life skill.

Divided minds

The distraction researchers at Dominguez Hills — Cheever, and psychologists Larry Rosen and Mark Carrier — are digging deeper into compulsive tech use. They want to see how the constant alerts and phone checks register in our brains, what thoughts or emotions trigger the distractions and what might keep them at bay.

But true multitasking is a myth. Our brains focus on one thing by shutting out others.

It’s not just young people who are smartphone obsessed. Between 2011 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who own a smartphone more than doubled, to 77 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. And all that mobile computing has turned us into a nation of multitaskers who do nearly everything while gazing at one or more screens.

The difference between today’s students and older generations, according to the Dominguez Hills team, is that younger people are more confident in their ability to multitask and do it more often.

But true multitasking is a myth. Our brains focus on one thing by shutting out others. We can’t pay attention to two things simultaneously, such as reading a text string while listening to a teacher’s instructions. Inevitably, something gets missed. Plus, rapid attention-switching exacts its own cognitive penalties.

Related: Are texting, multitasking teens losing empathy skills? Some differing views

digital distraction
Larry Rosen, psychology professor, is part of a team at Cal State Dominguez Hills using behavioral studies, physiological stress measures and brain scans to investigate how the distraction and anxiety engendered by digital devices can hurt learning. Credit: Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

A growing pile of studies finds that the more students multitask, the lower their grades. And student multitasking is nearly constant. A few years ago, the Dominguez Hills researchers watched hundreds of middle school, high school and university students as they studied. The students stayed with a single task for less than six minutes on average before switching to something else.

Seated at a table in his lab, Larry Rosen rattled off statistics about his students’ smartphone use, which he’d tracked with an app (and with their permission) for two years: average daily phone use jumped from 3 hours and 40 minutes in 2016 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in 2017.

“My guess is it will go to 5 hours plus. It’ll get worse before it gets better,” said Rosen, who co-authored “The Distracted Mind” (2016) with Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “This thing isn’t a tool,” he said, holding up his phone, “It’s an appendage.”

To ban, or not to ban

The constant checking of mobile devices has triggered a wavelet of recent classroom technology bans, especially at the collegiate level. For instance, in 2017, after two separate studies out of West Point found that students who used laptops in class received poorer grades, the lead researchers of the studies banned computers from their classrooms.

In data collected by Cal State Dominguez Hills’ psychologist Larry Rosen, his students’ average daily phone use jumped from 3 hours and 40 minutes in 2016 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in 2017.

“I’ve had about 20 or 30 people reach out to me and say, ‘I just read your paper and now I’ve stopped allowing laptops in the classroom,’ ” said one of the authors, economics professor Richard Patterson.

At the same time, however, many educators are adamant that the answer to digital distraction isn’t to ban devices, but to adjust how teachers teach in light of technology’s omnipresence.

“If you’re lecturing, your odds going up against Facebook, the Victoria’s Secret catalogue or an online game are slim,” said Devorah Heitner, author of the book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.*  She argues for more direct dialogue with young people about technology and the need to learn how to manage its use throughout their lives.

Likewise, the nonprofit Common Sense Education uses the slogan “Don’t Make a Ban Have a Plan” in its online toolkit for fighting digital distraction. The toolkit includes suggestions for meaningful things students can do with their devices — from classroom polling and quiz apps to digital creation tools — and advice for setting boundaries with a “Customizable Device Contract.”

Related: Do classroom clickers improve learning? It depends.

In the end, the technology-ban divide is often more a question of degree than of absolutes. After all, most ban advocates make room for exceptions, whether for students with disabilities or for directed use of technology in class, while ban opponents typically advocate for clear boundaries, including tech-free time and consequences for device misuse.

“If you’re lecturing, your odds going up against Facebook, the Victoria’s Secret catalogue or an online game are slim.”

Hoping to strike the right balance, a growing number of educators have sought help from the technology itself. In the fall of 2016, for instance, the Lackland Independent School District outside San Antonio, Texas, purchased a “mobile device management” system called TabPilot that gives teachers a dashboard view of each student’s school-issued iPad — and the power to take control and snap the browser of every device to a specific app or website.

“Before, it was wack-a-mole,” said Lesley Wreyford, the instructional technologist at Lackland’s Virginia Allred Stacey Junior-Senior High School. “Kids can be really creative in bypassing filters.”

Meanwhile, at Rhode Island’s Roger Williams University, marketing students have installed an app called Flipd that shuts down their smartphones during class — with compliance trackable by their professor, Edward Gonsalvez, and factored into their participation grades.

digital distraction
Jonathon Rodriguez, a graduate student in English at Cal State Dominguez Hills, says he cut way back on his phone use after he decided to “take school more seriously.” Credit: Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

During a recent meeting of Gonsalvez’s marketing class, the visible smartphones were dutifully dark and quietly charging from floor outlets. But most students still had laptops with several webpages open as the class discussed Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm and promotional plans for small businesses that wanted to boost social media traffic. By and large, students were engaged, but many still checked email and other on-screen interests. One student plotted a Google Maps route to Boston. Another perused time-lapse cooking videos on Facebook.

After class, Gonsalvez was matter-of-fact. He deemed the laptops too useful to banish, but acknowledged their potential for distracting students. “I can tell when they’re engaged or not, just by their body language,” he said. “I try to treat them as adults. And they can sink or swim as adults.”

I phone, therefore I am

During the pause in the Dominguez Hills screenwriting class, a student named Miroslava Cerda stayed at her desk near the front and scanned texts. Noting the messaging and social media alerts swamping her phone, she said, “Sometimes, it just gets too much, and I’m like, `Ugh! I need a break.’ ”

Still, she admitted the allure of the connectivity. Even with a classroom technology ban, she said, “sometimes, I still want to sneak a peek.”

Related: Getting schooled in social media

In fact, there’s growing evidence suggesting that mobile devices can hijack our minds even when we’re not scrolling. A 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that student subjects who kept their smartphones on their desks (face down and on silent), rather than in a backpack or stashed in another room, performed worse on tests of attention and cognitive processing. The difference was biggest among students who reported being the most attached to their smartphones.

What gives these devices such a strong hold on us? A prime suspect is a form of anxiety, commonly known as FOMO “Fear of Missing Out” — a term that originated in the early 2000s at Harvard Business School to describe grad students’ frantic, text-driven social lives. The advent of social media supercharged FOMO, and the term was popularized by MIT psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book, “Alone Together.”

digital distraction
Prompted by her research and classroom observations, Nancy Cheever, chair of the communications department at Cal State Dominguez Hills, championed a department-wide ban on laptops and mobile devices in class in 2016. Credit: Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

“Basically, we all walk around needing to know who wants us, and who’s calling out for us,” said Turkle. “And so the norm is that you’re always on.”

The Dominguez Hills researchers are exploring a distilled version of this anxiety — a sense of dread when separated from our virtual social networks, comparable to the jitters of an addict in early withdrawal.

The depth of the anxiety correlates with the extent of a person’s smartphone use, according to a 2014 study led by Cheever. Undergraduate subjects, rated as light, medium or heavy users of mobile devices based on survey responses, were deprived of their smartphones for more than an hour; they reported their anxiety levels at regular intervals. The anxiety felt by the light users stayed steady for the duration of the study, while the anxiety of heavy users shot through the roof as the phoneless time continued.

“Kids can be really creative in bypassing filters.”

The possibility that such anxiety can gum up our mental works as much as the occasional Facebook foray is the rationale for the “tech breaks” in Cheever’s department. “What helps with the anxiety is if you tell them, ‘OK, for this amount of time, you’re not going to look at your phone, but then you’ll get to check in again,’ ” she said. The goal is to wean the brain off its need to constantly check in, by relieving the anxiety that drives the compulsion.

Back at the screenwriting course, however, the direction of society’s technological tide was clear. Smartphones appeared in every story workshopped — sometimes nearly as prominently as the characters themselves.

At one point, Eames led a class discussion about how best to write instant-message dialogue. A few students zoned out occasionally — picking at cuticles or twirling hair and pens — but nobody stared into a screen. One student stood out due to his dress slacks and a dark grey tie clipped neatly to an indigo button-down. More distinctive still was the fact that during the tech breaks, this student, Jonathon Rodriguez, reached for a book rather than his phone. That particular evening, he immersed himself in “Story,” the class textbook on screenwriting by Robert McKee.

“It’s part of my decision to take school more seriously,” said Rodriguez, a first-year master’s degree student in English. He offered a philosophical reflection on why we have such a hard time avoiding our screens.

“It really isn’t that hard, but people have all these insecurities,” he said. “They can have actual, intelligent conversations with real people in class. But, the fact that they’re not getting likes on Instagram or Facebook tells them they’re not liked or appreciated by the world.

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Deborah Heitner’s book.

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  1. As a high school English teacher (Long Beach, CA.) the idea of enabling students by “letting them check in” is just as counter productive. I’m all for the ban. I’d much rather have a kids doodle or draw something; that is, being a bit creative. Now I know someone might say that they can be creative on a cell. Fine. Some other place. I’ve been teaching over 30 years (and I know what you’re thinking…old school) and you may be right, but when the BASICS can’t be acquired because they just “google it” then we’ve lost this generation. I wonder why it took so long for the cell phone folk to figure out that these things are addictive.

  2. Excellent article. Thank you, Chris. Is our U.S. Department of Education reading this? They are the department that drove public schools to this “Bring your own device” or “Bring your own technology” mindset, encouraging all students to own an internet device so that they could bring to school. And, now teachers, students, families and our society are paying the price in many ways.

    Besides digital distraction, we are now faced with online addictions of the worse kind, as our school buses and school campuses are not CIPA compliant. There is no supervision or filtered wifi network on the bus, a breeding ground for students exposing other students to harmful online content. And, even if the school building has a CIPA compliant wifi network, most students have their own cellular data plan that can easily bypass the wifi network, anyway. Our schools need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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