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digital distraction

Annie Murphy Paul has an excellent article in Slate and this publication this week about the issue of digital distraction while learning. A recently published study by psychologist Larry Berger found that in a short 15-minute period of observation, teenagers spent only 65 percent of their time studying. Their attention drifted after an average of 2 minutes from reading and writing their assignments to activities like Facebook, texting and instant messaging–and all this was while they knew they were being watched.

Digital distraction or multitasking is a modern scourge, not just for young people. Both we and our children are spending too much of our days drifting through a haze of ones and zeroes, eyes squinting at tiny screens as we zombie-stumble down the sidewalk, one earbud in, chat windows popping up, starting a work task and finding ourselves at the bottom of the Twitter feed four hours later, in what I like to call a “procrastination shame spiral.”

The question is what to do about it. Education is about giving children the skills to cope with life, and we owe it to them to be thoughtful about how we do that. The way I see it, in the educational setting there are three very different approaches to conquering distraction: control by authority, control through technology, and self-control. And these approaches have very different consequences.

Control by authority means putting the teacher and school in charge of students’ access to technology: banning cellphones in school, instituting “screens down” policies, and enlisting teachers to police students’ behavior from moment to moment. “I’ve requested mirrors for the walls of my classroom so that I can see who is IM-ing whom,” wrote one high school teacher. The drawbacks of these policies are obvious. They drive students to rebel, they are ham-fisted, resource-intensive, and all too easy to countermand. They imply that technology is not a trusted partner in the educational process, but a grudgingly tolerated one.

Control through technology means designing tools to nudge students in the direction of desired use. For example, an iPad can be set to run just one application at a time. The new Amplify classroom tablet features an “eyes on teacher” icon. When the teacher hits the icon on her machine, every tablet in the room goes offline, stops what it’s doing, and a message pops up to look at the teacher. Freedom is a $10 application that’s been downloaded 300,000 times. It disables your Internet for a fixed period of time, up to eight hours.

Control through technology, in a broader sense, also means making educational applications engaging enough that students, choose them over other video games or activities. It means analytics that can tell when a student’s attention is wandering, user interfaces that deliver gentle reminders, feedback loops like timers, scoreboards, or musical cues to help students focus and stay on task. It means harnessing students’ love of social networks or photosharing sites for educational and expressive purposes.

And what about self-control? This is the ultimate goal. We all want to help our students, just as we ourselves want to, become self-motivated, self-aware and emotionally intelligent enough to impose their own “Odysseus at the mast” solutions to digital distraction. We can give students a productivity toolbox with strategies like goalsetting, to-do lists, getting an accountability buddy, or taking timed “tech breaks” to help build up their ability to focus. It may make sense to scaffold students temporarily in the fight against digital distraction with control by authority, and to aid them with control through technology, but ultimately it has to be up to them or they won’t learn much.

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Anya Kamenetz is a journalist, the author of The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, And Where We Go Now, and a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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