By Angela Watson
The modern debate of how much cell phones distract us from everyday responsibilities can be settled by cognitive psychology. Researchers found that the average person only studies for approximately six minutes before moving on to a new task, which was primarily linked to cell phone and media usage (1). The prefrontal cortex is designed to only focus on a single item, leaving us to “swap focus” between items at a rapid pace when we multitask (2).
Imagine our brain’s secretary entering a filing cabinet, back and forth, and continually retrieving new information (a new file) based on the current focus, STUDYING; CELL PHONE RING; NEW EMAIL FROM AMAZON.COM, YOUR PACKAGE HAS SHIPPED; ONLINE SHOPPING; STUDYING; CELL PHONE RING; TEXT FROM MOM; STUDYING; CELLPHONE RING; NEW FACEBOOK NOTIFICATION; CELLPHONE RING; SNAPCHAT FROM BFF; STUDYING.
Well, you get the picture. Our brain’s secretary probably needs a vacation, and cellphones are bound to distract us because our brains are simply not wired to focus on that much input at once.
Think of a “caveman” running from a sabretooth tiger, do you think they noticed the cave they ran by or the berries that were behind that tree and thought “Oh, I will have to get back to those and hey, a place to sleep tonight!” When our brains were evolving, it was really only necessary to focus on survival, and this one thing kept humans occupied by always thinking of the next necessary step to surviving. In this modern world of technology, we have seriously amped up the expectations of our brains, because survival to us is now instant gratification and communication (2). The amount of external inputs to our brain is higher than ever before. And our way to cope? Pretending that multitasking is foolproof and attempting to juggle too much stimuli at once.
This level of constant distraction can be detrimental to new college students. As college students enter into a new program of study, there are already limits to their capabilities. They have the pressure to have the correct textbooks, figure out where this building is on a new campus, uncertainties about their level of preparedness for the course, and a lack of confidence that college is even the place for them. One would think this is enough, but of course we must think of the social construct of student life. Freshmen in college go through a whirlwind of emotions, as they transition from the big “senior” fish in a little “high school” pond, to being the little fish in a large pond. In the vast sea of college, professors make all the rules, and these little freshmen fish have a hard time keeping up.
After all, college students are adjusting to new expectations and new policies. One study has found, that as cell phone policies become stricter, student compliance goes down, and attitudes about such policies stay relatively unchanged (3). Students need a good reason to commit 100 percent of their attention to one thing. Several research studies have found that college students are aware of the large impact that cell phones have on their ability to focus, learn within the classroom, and study, but this does not deter students (4,5,6). Sadly, as media and cellphone usage goes up, GPA goes down (4), so save your throwback Nyan cat videos for after your study session.
The difficulty then is how do any of us expect new college students to then successfully focus-swap their attention, with a cellphone permanently attached to it? It really isn’t logical and the research does not back up this improbability either. The only explanation is cellphone addiction; there are now entirely new scales devoted to analyzing the psychosocial impact and internet addiction present in people (7). This level of addiction can at least account for the apathetic attitudes students dish out when having to part with their ever-beloved cell phones.
Students experiencing college today, compared to forty years ago when cellphones did not exist, undoubtedly have much higher difficulty studying and increased difficulty retaining information. So, if upon reading this, you have found yourself thinking that you may suffer from the ailment of cell phone and internet addiction this is what you should do:
Practice a slow departure from your cell phone.
For starters, start turning your cell phones completely off and leave them locked away whilst driving. It’s not worth it!
Next, start leaving your cell phone in a completely different room while studying. If you are in reaching distance, it is too close! Out of sight, is out of mind, and maybe you will build up a study routine that lasts longer than six minutes and beat the pathetic average.
Finally, start leaving your cell phone turned off and zipped away into your backpack during class time. Believe me, it is not that urgent, if it were, you would not be in class. If you only zip it away without turning it off, you will be tempted to check it. We all know the excuse of ‘checking the time’ is totally bogus!
Alternatively, leave your phone in your dorm room for long segments of the day. Then you will start to know what living life in the 90s was truly like!
Although the removal of the cell phone distraction seems somewhat impossible, and students would never be compliant with this idea, awareness of the harms of such distractions should be made. If only a cellphone cortex in the brain existed, and maybe in a few millennia, if humans are still around, our brains will have evolved to such. Since none of us will be around then, the best idea would be to make that change for yourself. Work on ways to remove distractions from your studying environment, beef up your study habits, and start to see a positive impact on your grades!
(1) Rosen, L. D., Mark Carrier, L., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.001
(2) Dux, P. E., Tombu, M. N., Harrison, S., Rogers, B. P., Tong, F., & Marois, R. (2009). Training Improves Multitasking Performance by Increasing the Speed of Information Processing in Human Prefrontal Cortex. Neuron, 63(1), 127-138. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2009.06.005
(3) Lancaster, A. L., & Goodboy, A. K. (2015). An experimental examination of students’ attitudes toward classroom cell phone policies. Communication Research Reports, 32(1), 107-111. doi:10.1080/08824096.2014.989977
(4) Jackson, L. D. (2013). Is mobile technology in the classroom a helpful tool or a distraction? The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society: Annual Review, 8(5), 129-140. doi:10.18848/1832-3669/cgp/v08i05/56335
(5) Bjornsen, C. A., & Archer, K. J. (2015). Relations between college students’ cell phone use during class and grades. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(4), 326-336. doi:10.1037/stl0000045
(6) Elder, A. D. (2013). College students’ cell phone use, beliefs, and effects on their learning. College Student Journal, 47(4), 585-592. Retrieved from http://www.projectinnovation.biz/csj_2006.html
(7) Kwon, M., Lee, J., Won, W., Park, J., Min, J., Hahn, C., … Kim, D. (2013). Development and Validation of a Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS). PLoS ONE, 8(2), e56936. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056936