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Teens & Tech: Too Distracted to Learn

Smart phones have not been with us long. Their popularity has grown so fast among youth that studies are just now emerging regarding their potential to erode skills that past generations acquired as a matter of course. Few technologies have invaded the lives of teens as thoroughly as the ever present smartphone. Their popularity among youth raises several questions for the adults in their lives. Can smart phones effect cognitive development in teens? Does unrestricted smart phone use disrupt the quality of their social interactions? Do smartphones create distracted learning in the classroom? These are only some of the questions educators and parents struggle with, but they are questions that need to be answered. From middle schools to colleges, cell phones’ adverse effects on student learning may generally outweigh their potential as an educational tool.

One English teacher, Jeff White, decided to take a deeper look into this issue. He found that it was a constant struggle to keep his students engaged in the lessons and off their smart phones, no matter what the topic was. Through conversations with other educators he discovered that they shared his frustration. The magnetic quality of the smartphone invariably won over the lesson for the day. He found that this was particularly true for students who were already low achievers; those who could least afford to be distracted. The better students seemed to have no difficulty handling the switch in attention between the phone as an entertainment device and the phone as a learning tool. These students had the self-discipline needed to keep their attention focused.

A chemistry teacher at the same high school wrote, “The variance in student ability to focus and engage in the actual task at hand is disconcerting, because although technology and the wealth of information that it can provide has the potential to shrink achievement gaps, I am actually seeing the opposite take place in the school.” The phone could be a great equalizer for students from all socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to play out that way. Students with low literacy levels and who struggle to stay on task find the cell phone a distraction. The ability to synthesize incoming information is often a challenge for the underachievers; the potential advantage of the smart phone is nullified.

School divisions across North America are trying to incorporate technology to enhance learning and close the digital divide. One sometimes successful effort is to incorporate peer editing using cloud-based word processing. Can the smart phone be used to enhance learning for all the students in a class or should teachers avoid using them as a teaching tool because of their potential distractibility?

A recent study out of the London School of Economics and Political Science on student access to smart phones and the achievement gap echoed similar concerns: “We find that mobile phone bans have very different effects on different types of students. Banning mobile phones improves outcomes for low achieving students the most, with no significant impact on high achievers.” In another study, researchers at Kent State University found that among college students more daily smart phone use correlated with lower overall GPAs. If college age students are so affected by excessive phone use, then surely the impact on high school students would be equally negative, if not more so.

Having covered the general effect of smart phones on learning, some specific skills that suffer from excessive smart phone use will be explored. Social interaction skills are developed and honed in high school. These are critical skills that become invaluable in adult life. Emotional intelligence is the single most important factor in predicting success. The ability to understand emotions and to use them as a source of information for problem-solving, creativity, and negotiating challenging social situations is a skill that is in high demand. These skills are not developed through e-mail, snapchat, or messaging. They are developed through face to face communication, and although this takes more time and effort, these skills correlate with a sense of well-being and community that a digital message cannot provide.

As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, studies show that skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined. Reading for pleasure among young people has been replaced by visual media at a cost. Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA, analyzed 50 studies on learning and technology. She believes that it is reading that enhances thinking and engages the imagination in ways that visual media cannot. Her conclusion is that “if we want to develop a variety of skills we need a balanced media diet….” Studies show that visual media teaches students to process information, but that reading has the unique power to develop reflection, induction, critical thinking and imagination. “Students today have more visual literacy and less print literacy.”

Among the studies Greenfield analysed was one in which students were given access to the internet during class and were encouraged to use it during lectures. The multitasking students did not achieve a thorough comprehension of the material when tested after the lecture. Those  who did not have internet access performed better than those who did have access. She concluded that for certain tasks multi-tasking “prevents people from getting a deeper understanding of information.”

It would seem that basic math skills have also declined with the ubiquitous use of smart phones. Knowing the times tables and how to add, subtract, and multiply have gone the way of the dinosaur, largely due to the ever available smartphone calculator. What we don’t use, we lose. Although there are some exciting educational apps on the market, particularly for high school students, the market for now is a digital wild west. There are some math curricula out there tailored to smart phones that have produced positive results such as Project K-Nect. Their appeal is largely due to the interactive quality that engages students socially, academically, and provides them with a mathematical support group. New research, such as the one recently published out of the University of Texas, suggests that overall, cell phones significantly reduce cognitive capacity just by being present. Assistant Professor, Adrian Ward and his co-authors conducted experiments with roughly 800 smartphone users in order to assess how well people completed tasks when their smartphone was on their desks, even when it was turned to silent and placed face down. Those whose phones were in the next room significantly outperformed those whose phone was on their desk. The participants, who put their phones in their pocket or handbag in the same room, slightly outperformed those who had placed them on the desk. The findings suggest that the mere presence of the smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs intellectual functioning. “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, the participants’ capacity decreases,” according to Ward… it’s a brain drain.”

By: Alison Zenisek

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Contact Stephanie Duprat for more information at
1-888-634-5556 x106 or stephanie@mzpinc.ca.