Opinion: Daily Journal

Too Much Media Multitasking Limits Learning

Attention is the coin of the realm in learning. The ability to “attend” to a task — to concentrate completely — has profoundly positive effects on learning and retention. Yet students today inhabit a staccato-paced world of interruption and distraction. Are they honing this still-critical skill?

Not exactly. New research from psychologist Larry Rosen, published this May in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, shows that most students cannot resist the siren song of social media and other digital distractions for more than a few minutes, even during dedicated homework time. Rosen and his colleagues evaluated 263 middle, high school, and college students for 15-minute intervals of home study involving “important” schoolwork, finding that students averaged less than six minutes before succumbing to texting and media multitasking. Only 65 percent of students’ study time, on average, was devoted to schoolwork.

Even Rosen, a veteran media researcher, was alarmed, calling the results “startling” in his Psychology Today blog.

What sorts of implications do these findings have for learning today? Plenty. Distracted learning is not good learning. Research on cognition has shown that “multitasking” impedes efficiency and accuracy, especially for complicated tasks. A home or school learning environment pulsing with distractions isn’t a particularly effective one.

What can parents do to mitigate distractedness? Separating teens from mobile phones during homework time is a good place to start, and removes the pre-eminent study-buster. (Texting took top honors as a distractor in Rosen’s study.) Not surprisingly, students with gadget-rich study spaces multitasked the most. Thus, Rosen advocates brief “technology breaks,” in which students engage with devices following longer periods of concentrated work. It’s a new twist on an old mantra: Work now, play later.

Discouraging frequent media multitasking requires ingenuity when homework is done primarily on computers. Parents can insist such work be completed in open spaces, not bedrooms, so they can monitor the pace of progress periodically, as well as the number of open windows on the computer (as Rosen’s researchers did). If necessary, parents can use software to block websites that become chronic time-wasters, or to enforce time limits on Internet use.

Finally, parents should know that Facebook and the textbook don’t mix: checking Facebook just once during Rosen’s 15-minute interval was linked to a lower GPA.

Research on media multitasking has classroom ramifications, too. Many educators today exhibit a lemming-like approach toward technology immersion. Forget due diligence. Everyone is doing it, the thinking goes, so let’s saturate classrooms and hope for the best. School districts in North Carolina and nationwide have raced to embrace one-to-one computing environments — or even “bring your own device” programs, in which students use personal tablets or smartphones in class to complete work.

Yet, as I’ve noted before, there is little compelling, consistent research showing that information technology saturation boosts achievement. We know even less about the effects of technology immersion on student attention. What we are learning should serve as a flashing yellow light, calling for a more discerning, balanced approach to technology integration.

Certainly, technology can and should be leveraged to promote deep, individualized learning. But research from Syracuse University’s Jing Lei and others affirms that we should think in terms of quality, not quantity, when we employ technology as a learning tool.

More fundamentally, as adults we must teach (and model for kids) the importance of staying the course, tuning out distractions, and postponing pleasure when it’s time to work. Educators obsess over 21st-century skills, but guess what? Knowing how to push through boredom, to sustain attention, and to delay gratification — these are among the most essential skills of all.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.