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Distracted: the Breakdown of Education

Last Updated on May 18, 2021

Learning how to google an answer is not education.

Education as we knew it in ages past is gone. The digital revolution of the last two decades has permanently changed the way kids learn. On the one hand, the informational explosion has greatly enhanced learning and gave instant access to knowledge to those who previously had none. Now anyone with an Internet connection can enter into the Library of Everything, whether they reside in Manhattan or Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, the learning process has been disrupted by one simple truth – if all the information is so easily accessible online, what’s the point of retaining it in one’s head

If knowledge is external and available to anyone for free, why bother learning anything at all?

Learning is hard. Why not keep the limited real estate of the mind occupied instead by things that are easy and fun? In the lyrics of a popular music video “Life is fun”, currently at 97 million views on Youtube, the creators sing: “98% of what you learn is a waste!” Kids are listening.

Instead of thinking, they give up and just look up an answer on their phones.

The age of distraction

People who went through an experience are the ones who are better equipped to help others going through the same ordeal. It just so happens that in our family we struggled more than most with the problem of digital distraction.

At one point, at the end of our rope, we sent this desperate email to our son’s school:

Dear Principal,

As you know, our son is a very capable student but his grades are deteriorating. He is struggling with homework, and we are convinced this is mostly due to distractions from technology. He cannot resist the temptation to switch to gaming sites or listening to music when he is supposed to do work – at home and at school. At this point we would like to have a meeting to request an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for him that excludes or minimizes homework on the computer and replaces computer-based assignments with those on paper. Please advise when we can come to the school to discuss our request.

Sincerely,
Desperate Parents

The problem got so out of hand, we were requesting an IEP for the child who did not have a learning disability.

Yet, there was a very real learning disability, and it was man-made. It was called computer-based homework.

On any given day it would take me and my husband close to 3 hours to supervise our son’s homework, which should have realistically lasted 15 minutes. It would go like this: Our son would take his chromebook and go in the corner, plug in his headphones and pretend to do “homework”. We would check on him in an hour to see how much progress he had made. On the page where an essay should be, there would be his name and the date, the rest of it blank. No essay. What have you been doing for the last hour?! – we would ask incredulously. “Thinking! Leave me alone!” Short of standing behind his shoulder, putting our life and work on hold, and ignoring the needs of our other 2 children, nothing would get accomplished. He would watch Youtube videos, play games online, listen to music – anything but homework.

What about school account restrictions on Google classroom? He found a way around them by creating his own unrestricted account and gamed away. We ended up working out a solution with the technology department at the school: our son got a separate school chromebook where everything but Google classroom was blocked and he couldn’t switch out of the school account. He is still distracted by looking up funny memes on Google images, but at least all other websites remain unavailable. For now. He has not hacked it yet.

We were at our wits’ end – even without a smartphone in the picture! Most teens juggle multiple screens during homework. According to the study by Common Sense Media, 60% of teens admit to texting and social media while doing homework, and more than 75% listen to music. Two thirds of them also think it makes no difference to the quality of their work.

Scientists know better: multitasking is detrimental to the quality of intellectual work.

Biologically, the brain can rapidly switch between tasks, but can only do one thing at a time. In order to accomplish any result, people usually need to perform ONE essential task that is at the center of their job. If you are a writer, put words on paper. If you are a salesman, make phone calls. If you are a youtuber, shoot video. If you are a student, do your homework.

Not homework/gaming/youtube/social media/texting/music/TV – all at the same time!

Switching back and forth between homework on the laptop and social media notifications on the phone is the new normal for kids today. This behavior is a real drain on brain power due to the psychological phenomenon of attention residue: the mind leaves part of attention behind on the original task, resulting in poor performance on the next task. The more tasks, the less brain power is given to each – as simple as that. The attention pie is divided into ever-smaller pieces – but it does not grow any bigger, because brain capacity is limited by biology. 

Our kids pay shallow attention to each of the 20 things they are doing, siphoning brain power away from homework. If their phones are in the classroom at school with them, many cannot resist checking the phone every few minutes, and when they do, they are not listening to the teachers.

And when they are not paying attention, they are not learning.

A study from Stanford titled “Cognitive control in media multitaskers” found that heavy media multitaskers were slower in performing tasks, made more mistakes, and – surprisingly – had a harder time switching between tasks, most likely due to reduced ability to filter out irrelevant information they are constantly distracted by. The study dates back to 2009, only two years after the first iPhone was introduced and the smartphone revolution started. The amount of digital distractions to kill productivity of media multitaskers had increased exponentially since then.

Another study from the University of Missouri in 2006 measured the effects of multitasking on the performance of teens and young adults. They have found that if study participants were intentionally distracted trying to memorize the task, and then were distracted again trying to recall the information (the equivalent of how teens study and take tests today with smartphones by their side), the result was a 46 to 59 percent decline in performance. Newer studies on media multitasking are coming out all the time.

Frances E.Jensen, MD, writes in her book “The Teenage Brain”: “I remember walking in on my sons during evening homework to find them with the television on, headphones attached to iPods, all the while messaging someone on the lower corner of their computer screens and texting someone else on their iPhones. It wasn’t a problem, they protested, when I suggested they concentrate on their homework, assuring me their course reviews for the next day’s exams were totally unaffected by the thirty-two other things they were doing at the same time. I didn’t buy it.

The conclusion from the experts is unanimous: working in a state of distraction is devastating for performance.

But the tyranny of today’s social media communication code dictates a new morale – kids are expected to answer all incoming communication within minutes, being available 24/7 to anyone and anything that decides to hijack their attention with their agenda and distract them from their own. Our kids are glued to their phones because if they don’t react instantly, their friends might get offended and even depressed as to why they are being ignored?! Failure to respond can even be classified as cyberbullying and land the offender in hot water!

Peer pressure to participate in the constant chatter has never been higher – or more detrimental to performance.

So the kids feel pressured to attend to a thousand digital obligations on their plate – every day. They got sucked into multiple social media channels their friends use, each one more addictive than the previous one, engineered to produce the drain on their time and attention. They spend their days in mad dashing between a million trivial tasks. No wonder they are overwhelmed. Of course, they have little time left for schoolwork. Research also shows the darker side of this lifestyle: a perpetual frazzled and distracted state brings no real satisfaction. Their mental resources are drained and we have the much talked about mental health crisis on our hands.

Kids simply don’t have enough psychological bandwidth left to accomplish anything of value. Their mental real estate is a limited resource, and it is occupied by a multitude of shallow tasks. The trivial digital obligations our kids feel they need to perform daily take the time and attention from the important work of getting an education. A much-quoted law or 80/20, also called the Pareto principle, states that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of effort. Yet they spend their days not prioritizing the most important 20 percent to keep up with the shallow 80 percent.

The result is no capacity left for the deep work of learning.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work beautifully outlines a number of arguments for why deep, focused work is not only rare, but increasingly valuable in our day and age. This is true for adults, and it is true for the work of learning our kids are supposed to be doing. In reality, a typical homework session for a teenager is a frenzy of fragmented activity of social media messages, distracting music, online gaming, funny memes and cat videos on Youtube. What kind of thinking can be accomplished in such an environment?!

To produce things of real value, kids need to focus and concentrate. Which is hard enough for adults, and much more so for the little humans with immature brains. Their multiple screens make concentration impossible – by design. The creators of addictive technology are not interested in the quality of kids’ education – they are interested in maximizing screen time for profit.

Digital Addiction

The distractions of Youtube videos, social media and gaming had wasted all the time away, it’s late at night, homework is not done, parents are going crazy, sleep and sanity are being sacrificed on the altar of addictive technology. Tomorrow’s academic performance and grades are a predictable failure. Long-term success as a human being who needs to learn, work, and build relationships is in jeopardy. 

Why is this happening? And what can parents do about it?

Screen time Wall of protection techdetoxbox.com

Digital distractions hijack young brains. Kids’ underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is no match for a multi-trillion data industry. Humans are wired for the principle of least resistance, which is especially difficult for young people to override. The prefrontal cortex where willpower resides is not fully formed until the age of 25. Our brains always try to conserve energy, and therefore naturally turn to the next easiest thing that pops up and asks for our attention – a Facebook notification, a tweet, an email, a text is way easier to address than writing an essay or doing math.

It provides the kids with a sense of instant gratification of having completed a task, delivering a dopamine hit to the pleasure centers of the brain. Tech companies are very interested in keeping kids hooked and distracted and collecting their data, because kids will grow up into adult customers. Where their attention goes, there goes the money – first their parents’, then their own.

A phone buzzing with a notification next to the kid who attempts to concentrate on homework also exploits another psychological trick: the human tendency to remember incomplete tasks more easily than tasks that have been completed. A social media notification screams “unfinished business!”, distracting the child from the task at hand until they address it. And then the next one pops in. 

Homework tends to take a LONG time in this environment.

The principles of social validation and reciprocity make kids feel like they need to do what their friends are doing, always react and respond, and not miss out on anything that’s going on, for fear of becoming social outcasts. Digital media creators know that FOMO (the fear of missing out) is powerful for the kids and exploit these cognitive biases to maximize screen time – not homework time.

There is a long list of hacks that tech companies use to get kids and adults addicted to their devices, whole books have been written on the subject. The conclusion for concerned parents is simple: your child’s self-control has no chance against the power of addictive technology. They need your help.

Attention Span

According to the study conducted by Microsoft in Canada, the average human attention span had fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds, which is a shorter attention span than that of a goldfish. The fish can pay attention for 9 seconds. There is very little chance you will finish reading this article! You will find the information disturbing – for 8 seconds. Unless you summon the willpower to resist digital distractions that call your attention elsewhere.

Even the most disciplined adults cannot resist the pull of the phone – just look around you in any social setting. People spend a lot of money and time to attend an event, and half of the audience would be scrolling their social media instead of paying attention. If grown functional adults do not have the willpower, how can we expect the kids with their half-baked prefrontal cortex resist the temptation to look at the phone in the classroom or while doing homework?

Another disturbing question is how overexposure to digital media affects children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Attention span is already impaired with ADHD – it is the very definition of the condition. Constant digital stimulation of the malfunctioning dopamine loop mechanism in the ADHD brain seems to exploit this vulnerability. Switching attention rapidly is encouraged by the multitasking nature of digital media. 

The short attention span and impulsivity that a child needs to overcome are being reinforced instead.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2018 found that teens who used digital media many times per day and already had an ADHD diagnosis, experienced an increase in symptoms, while kids without ADHD developed ADHD-like symptoms after two years of frequent digital media use. According to the study, “Mid-adolescence is a period of high neural plasticity during which brain circuitry underlying attention and behavioral control mature rapidly and may be vulnerable to exposures that disrupt neurodevelopment”. 

Researchers seem to suggest that young brains are biologically rewired by digital media. Kids are reprogrammed for shorter attention spans, lack of self control, difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, and impulsivity – the classic symptoms of ADHD.

Digital distractions are ubiquitous. Children can always find something mindless to do on the screen, like playing this offline game that Google has so conveniently embedded in its Chrome browser:

google dinosaur game over

We were picking up a Chromebook from the repair shop (why it was in the repair shop is another story featuring a tech tantrum). There were no apps on it. There was no Internet connection. Yet, we were sitting in the car for 15 minutes while I tried to convince my son to stop wasting our time with a stupid jumping dinosaur! If I did not take the computer away, we would still be sitting there.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Cassie Hargrave

    Thank you!

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