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Attention Alert! Study on Distraction Reveals Some Surprises

Distractions from our brains hurt as much or more than those from our tech.

Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

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, which 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 the text message I sent five 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 individuals 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). Oh yes, one other wrinkle was that we timed the text messages to occur when important material was being shown on the videotape that was going to be tested later. We were right that the group who got eight texts did worse, but the group with four texts did not. HOWEVER, here a mistake in our instructions told us more about what was going on inside the students’ heads when the text arrived. Those students who answered our texts immediately did worse than those who opted to wait a minute or two or even three or four to respond. Those students were using their metacognitive skills to decide when was a good time to be distracted.

How do we teach focus in a world that is constantly drawing our attention 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. Then you take a one to two-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. Thanks to Steve Jobs (and others) for making such alluring, distracting technologies.

POSTSCRIPT: Read more about our relationship with technology in my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, in stores now!

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