During the 90 minutes spent studying for a French quiz, Brenda Lau, 19, a New York University Political Theory and Literature sophomore, has checked her cell phone’s social media applications at least 10 times.
Sounds familiar? This has become the Generation-Y mode of studying: the era where social media updates are far more captivating — and distracting — than French conjugations and assigned readings. Before the digital millennium, distraction once came in the form of the television box. Since then, it has transmuted and shrunken to the size of a smartphone, but its pull has become stronger. For many Generation Y students, with social media now in the palm of our hands, resisting it during study time takes herculean effort.
Students’ engagement in other forms of digital activity such as social media while studying inhibits their brain’s capacity for essential processing, found a study published in the Computers & Education journal in last September. By being distracted by social media, students divert their energies away from a betterunderstanding of study materials. For Lau, this means that her brain processes the newest updates on her Facebook newsfeed better and faster than the intricacies of French grammar. After all, the former requires only rapid responses, while deliberation is essential for the latter.
At times when students lack interest in what they are studying, social media provides an all-too-easy distraction. NYU English and American literature sophomore Charline Jao, 19, often takes – she air-quotes – ‘study breaks,’ the kind that says, “I don’t want to study, so I’m going to go on Facebook for a bit.”
Studies have shown that such interruptions – even those fueled by academic reluctance – often work against students. With every ‘break,’ memories become more shallow and fragmented, and thus less retrievable; the brain’s capacity for holding new information slowly becomes restricted. This creates a bottleneck in which the working memory is strained from handling an overload of information from rivaling sources. The brain either retains study-related information, or social gloss; there can be no in-between.
What students often don’t realize is that constant task switching – from French to Facebook and back – leads to what experts call a “resumption lag” making it harder to get back to the same place in a previous task. Not only is this inefficient, it is also unrewarding. When studying for examinations, task switching will only shortchange students’ ability to perform well. Research has shown that students who aren’t able to concentrate for long periods of time, and who task switch often tend to score lower grade point averages than those who don’t. In other words, no matter how unwilling students may be, it is in their best interests to stay focused on one task at a time.
Still, it’s not us, it’s them; to cover our lack of self-discipline, we blame social media and technology for being too distracting. Wrong, said Jordan Grafman, a neurologist and chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Technology is brilliant, but it is only when people become obsessed with it that they end up being more easily distracted and controlled by it,” he said. His advice? “It’s all about judicious use,” he said. “Don’t just throw it out. Learn to manage it.”
Kimberly Farmer, 19, a student leader at Duke University, learned to control social media the hard way. Being active in leadership positions meant that she would often get messages through Facebook or email, and she feels compelled to respond immediately, even if there is no urgency. She knows that she can’t fight her distractions, but she could at least avoid them. Before studying, the Arizona native checks all updates on her phone, email and social media websites, so that they would not distract her halfway through her studies.
Farmer, who prefers studying in her dorm room, said that on occasion, she places her phone in another room when she studies. If she has no need for her laptop, it joins her phone elsewhere. But when even that fails, she resorts to using ‘Self Control,’ a popular free application for Mac OS X that allows its users to block their access to certain websites for a specified time frame. American artist Steve Lambert wrote on his website that he masterminded it because he knows that “the time you can block out to get focused work done is invaluable.” (The application was coded by Columbia University student, Charlie Stigler.)
Yet, these are all just stopgap measures that do not tackle the root of the problem: the lack of self-inhibition. Larry Rosen, a psychologist and professor at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes that students must gradually increase their ability to focus, instead of just shutting out technology. In an email interview, he added that the latter does not address students’ underlying anxiety of missing out on their virtual social world. Rather, he advocates “tech breaks” as a method of weaning oneself off technology.
He recommends checking social media and other communication tools for one minute, before setting an alarm for 15 minutes, silencing the phone and placing it aside. When the individual is able to focus for 15 minutes without getting distracted, he should extend the duration in increments of five minutes. After a while, the brain will realize that it is not missing out on anything if the individual don’t check in as often as he had been doing.
Emily Liu, 19, an avid social media user, has created her own version of a “tech break.” The NYU sophomore who hails from a laid-back West Coast culture professed to be very disciplined when she studies. She typically closes her laptop when she studies, and only checks social media, listen to music or surf the Internet for five to 15 minutes when she takes study breaks. “I see them as a way to recharge, rather than as a way to distract myself,” she said.
For all easily-distracted students out there, author and researcher Alex Pang says it best in his self-help book, “The Distraction Addiction,” advising that “Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”