Losing Focus: The Dangers of Technological Distraction

Aaron Gentry describes the threat to attentiveness presented by digital devices and offers suggestions how to combat this.

In 1998 author David Shenk coined the term “Data Smog” to indicate the confusion and congestion that stems from an overabundance of information without the time to adequately understand or process that information. If it could be said that we were choking on too much information in 1998, we must be suffocating from information overload now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of the students that walk into my classroom every day. Armed with smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the modern American student has access to such vast quantities of instant information that each one can function as his own Delphic oracle, seemingly accessing the knowledge of the gods with answers to any question that his mind conceives. On the surface it might seem that the information and data-rich environment of the modern classroom would provide the perfect foundation for training classical school students—we can focus on the “lost tools of learning” knowing that the specific information these tools may access is only a click (or finger swipe) away. Unfortunately, more and more research seems to be leading to the opposite conclusion. As technologists, psychologists and neuroscientists learn more about how the myriad gadgets and information that we interact with affect our brains, the news is not good. Ours and our students’ lives are disrupted by the constant access that we have to technological gadgets, causing us less sleep and more distraction than ever before.

Many students are not known for having strong sleep habits in the best of times, but the glut of technological devices has only added to the problem. One recent study from the University of Rhode Island discovered that college students lost an extra forty-five minutes of sleep each week because of cell phone usage. A second study from the University of Chicago found that for many people checking Twitter or e-mail is harder to resist than cigarettes or alcohol, leading one headline to proclaim, “Facebook More Addictive Than Cigarettes” (Forbes.com). The Rhode Island study also found that many students behave like addicts as well. Several students in the study admitted to sleeping with their phones under their pillows, with some waking up multiple times during the night to respond to text messages or status updates from friends. While these students might represent the extremes of the study, my conversations with students and parents seem to indicate that more and more the “tech addicted” student represents the norm rather than the exception.

The constant barrage of beeps, buzzes, and updates that permeates the technological fog in which our students exist keeps them tethered to a stream of information that is increasingly harder to set aside or ignore. Along with the distraction caused by the various devices at our students’ disposal, researchers have also found an additional connection between screen time and lack of sleep. The light emitted by cell phones, tablets and computer screens when used before bed blocks the production of melatonin, a hormone secreted in the brain to help regulate sleep cycles. This means that many of our students are not getting the sleep that they need in order to function properly during the day. It should be no surprise that many students drag themselves through the school day when they are not getting good sleep at night.

One of the goals of any classical education is the production of students who can give deep and meaningful attention to the world around them; discernment, logical thinking and cultural engagement all require sustained attention to particular questions. Unfortunately our technology-rich culture tends to push our students in the opposite direction. With social media updates, text messages, live sports scores and more, our students’ attention is constantly being pulled away from the task at hand. Classicist Sarah Ruden describes the problem
in an article written for Books and Culture. She says, “For my most recent students, memorizing verb paradigms is just one choice, among a near infinity at hand, for the use of time and attention. And electronics are designed to be nearly effortless for users, which hardly contributes to value judgments about their use. Stick with a pre-exam review session, or answer your phone to help a friend track an opponent in a paintball tournament?” (Books and Culture, Sep. 2011). Our students are swimming against a strong current of distraction when we ask them to give focused attention to Homer or differential equations amidst a sea of personally tailored messages and entertainment at their fingertips. “But maybe,” someone might say, “ we are helping our students to become better at multi-tasking and non-linear thought.” Many of my own students have tried to argue that they actually learn better when they are able to listen to their iPod or have a TV on in the background. Unfortunately, recent research demonstrates that multi-tasking is more mythological than actual. Alan Jacobs alludes to this in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He writes, “Many of us try to console ourselves in the midst of the blooming and buzzing by claiming the powers of multitasking. But a great deal of very thorough research into multitasking has been done in recent years, and it has produced some unequivocally clear results, chief among them being:

• no one actually multitasks; instead, we shift among different tasks and give attention to only one at any given time;


• the attempt to multitask results in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’;

• those who believe they are skilled multitaskers tend to be worse at it than others” (Jacobs, 83).

Many of our students and parents are convinced they are adept at paying attention to many things at once when in reality they are paying good attention to none of them. If we agree with Winifred Gallagher that “skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life” (Gallagher, 2), then our students are being cut off from the good life by devices that promise, at best, an entertained life. It is in the midst of this world of distraction that classical educators (who are distracted themselves) are called to teach.

It is tempting, in light of all of the research, to want to jettison technology and distance ourselves and our students from the technological morass of the modern world. Unfortunately this is an unrealistic expectation in a world that is increasingly dependent on digital devices. However, there are some ways that we can help our students become more discerning about the technology in their lives. First, we must learn to moderate our consumption of information. Like any craving it is easy to glut ourselves with the overflow of information available to us at any moment. Our nation faces an epidemic of obesity because people have not trained themselves to say no to their craving for food. With technology, like food, the response is not to quit eating entirely, but learning to eat in moderation. Choosing times of the day to read e-mail or Facebook and limiting ourselves to those times will help us to digest the flood of technological information that we are taught to crave. A second and closely related suggestion is that we designate certain times and spaces as “no technology” zones. Modern technology seeks to be ubiquitous in our lives, giving us the sense that we must have it all the time. Good use of technology strives to overcome that mentality by clearly designating activities that are technology free both at home and at school.

A third and final suggestion for helping our students manage their technology comes from ancient Christian practice: fasting. Every spring my students and I participate in a voluntary technology fast. The students surrender their cell phones, iPods, laptops and other digital devices that normally occupy their attention throughout the day. They are required to abstain from TV, internet browsing (unless assigned by a teacher), and video games as well. Each day they keep a journal of their thoughts, schedules and personal interactions. Inevitably what I find by the end of the week is that the students are more relaxed, better rested, and more focused than when they began the week. Many of them report getting homework done early, spending time in quality conversations with friends and family, and going to bed much earlier than usual. They are always surprised to discover how much influence their technology holds over them. Fasting has always been a means of focusing our attention and depriving ourselves in order than we might grow spiritually. Applied to our technology it gives us a chance to realize that often we are enslaved to our tools rather than using them to do what we ought. Just as it is wrong to completely jettison technology, we cannot make the mistake that it is entirely neutral with no effect on our lives. Setting aside that technology for a time gives us a chance to see the impact that the technological world has on all aspects of our lives.

There is no doubt that we and our students have great challenges when it comes to keeping our attention focused on the task of education. The smog of information that presses in at every moment is always vying for our attention and affection. Learning to keep our attention focused, and helping our students to do the same is a battle worth fighting. While we cannot become Luddites in our attempt to cope with a true attention deficit in our students, neither can we naively assume that the technology that we use is neutral in its effect on the teaching-learning process in our schools. We must do our best to be educated about the various technologies that exist while also teaching and modeling discernment and moderation in our use of the gadgetry available to us. Teaching students to be discerning and focused in an age of increased distraction is just one more way that classical Christian educators can help students to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

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