Dealing with Digital Distractions

UWCSEA East has been requiring students in grades 6 and above to have laptops for learning since 2011. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how students learn with technology, and we continue to push our pedagogical practices to ensure that technology is leveraged in the best ways possible to enhance student learning. We also know that since then, our students and their families have learned a lot about digital devices and learning. We recognize that when we put a device in the hands of an adolescent, and ask them to take it home, it can have significant impact on family habits. One of the concerns we hear about most from parents and students alike is that of digital distractions.

We’ve posted about digital distractions before, both at East and at Dover — in fact, more than 5 years later,  our earliest post on digital distractions remains one of our most popular. Our most recent post on this topic was in March from our Primary School DLCs. Clearly, distractions aren’t going away any time soon.

What do we know for sure about digital distractions?  

We know that digital tools — even the most pedagogically sound tools that take our learning in fantastically new directions — can be distracting. We know this not only from our own experiences as adults, but we know this because our students are remarkably honest and they tell us this, too. In focus groups, where we specifically asked students in grades 6-11 about their use of our OLP (Online Learning Platform), they told us that social features in programs we use every day (e.g., Google Docs, the OLP, or even GMail) tempt them to socialise with friends instead of focus on their school work. And yet, in the same breath students tell us they find these features tremendously helpful for learning when they are used for things like immediate peer and teacher feedback. What they struggle with, they tell us, is self-managing these tools to prioritise effectively. 

We know that students struggle to find the right balance. “It’s hard to figure out when to use it for learning and when to use it for fun,” students tell us. This evident tension between a tool’s very positive benefit and its potential negative impact is something we acknowledge and even welcome — the fact that our students notice this tension, but can’t quite figure out how to manage it is an indicator that they instinctively recognize  to the need to self-regulate. Students tell us that when discovering a new tool, site, or platform, they typically go through an experimentation stage, and then a full immersion stage, whereby they find it difficult to prioritise and be productive. Shortly after immersion, they find they hit “peak” use, which might mean that priorities slip as they reach max capacity. At that point, students either figure out their own strategies to manage the distraction, or they find themself faced with an unpleasant consequence which then helps them regain control. Unsurprisingly, our students’ experiences  dovetail with current research on technological immersion as part of social development.

We know that these distractions happen both in and outside of the classroom. Because of the ubiquitousness of distractions, it’s important that teachers and parents act as partners to help students learn to manage distractions and maximize learning.

Lastly, we also know that the brain can’t multi-task. Our working memory can only hold a limited number of information, and every interruption sets us back in both a productive and creative sense.  We know that the distraction of an interruption during focused work negatively impacts cognition. Single-tasking should be our aim for an abundance of reasons, but most importantly, because it helps us think better.

How do we manage distractions?

So, given all that we know, how might we approach the problem of distractions? It’s important to note here that there is not one silver-bullet action, response, or solution to the problem of distractions. Rather, distractions are an inevitable lifestyle by-product of the information age that we will have to manage indefinitely. It will take multiple approaches, some of them in tandem, and each individual and family will have to try different combinations to see which works best for them on The Road to Single-Tasking Nirvana.

  1. Set limits —  and stick to them.  Self-management is a key skill within the UWCSEA profile, and this manifests in our PSE programme and beyond. We actively teach students to self-manage. However, we know that the adolscent brain sometimes struggles to understand future consequences for present actions, and so we might need to help them to set these limits. The limits you set in your home around screen time, device use, and media consumption will help your child learn to self-regulate. We strongly recommend using a Family Media Agreement to agree on these limits, and to revisit the agreement regularly as your child develops and your family’s needs change. Tools like the Focus App and Rescuetime — which all Middle School students are introduced to before the end of September — can help students (and adults too) with self-monitoring and setting autonomous limits.  Eventually, we hope our middle schoolers will be able to set their own limits and be in control of those limits, but at the same time we need to help them understand why they exist, and be supportive in helping them set limits if they are struggling to self-manage on their own. As you work with your child to set limits, be sure to also set aside scheduled time for other activities — sport, music, family outings, and whatever other activities your family prioritises.  Putting these in a family calendar or making them a part of your Family Media Agreement can help reinforce the importance of self-management in a balanced lifestyle.
  2. Model everything. Adolescents see us every day at work and at play. They take subconscious cues from the variety of adults in their lives and often mimic their behaviours without consciously realising it. Teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, sport coaches, school support staff, and family helpers might each have regular contact time with your child. Distraction affects adults too — we are all learning different ways to manage the barrage of interruptions. It’s a team effort to model the behaviour of single-tasking, setting limits, and finding balance on a day-to-day basis. And we all make mistakes, too. It’s a continual process of making choices and evaluating the cost vs benefit of what activities hold our attention or distract us — whether it’s a Facebook post, a virtual reality video game, a new Netflix series, or Skyping with a loved one. Talk with your child about the different behaviours they see from the adults around them. Ask, “What do you think is healthy, balanced use?” and use that as the basis of a conversation to identify adults around them who model good habits and who might act as support as they develop their own.  
  3. Consider practicing  mindfulness. There is significant research as to how practicing mindfulness can help us focus in order to be more productive and creative. As much as it might seem counterintuitive, technology use gives us a unique opportunity to practice mindfulness in order to cultivate the focus that we seek. Technology is designed to capture our attention, so it’s important to be deliberate about deciding how to spend our time.  Dr. Matthew Brensilver, Director of Programs at Mindful Schools, offers specific strategies you might find useful around being mindful while using technology.
  4. Access resources. Parents and educators everywhere struggle with these tensions, and some wonderful organisations have stepped in to help. Resources we particularly find useful include Common Sense Media, Mindful Schools, as well as Dr. Dan Siegel and the Kids in the House website. Annie Murphy Paul, a social sciences journalist, writes in spaces all over the Internet (and also has several published books), but her articles on the Mind/Shift site are a good starting point to explore the connections between technology, learning, and intentional focus.  

And of course, please do talk to us here at school. While we likely won’t have the one-size-fits-all solution for your family, we can help by talking through some of the strategies we know have worked for us or for others, or by providing additional resources. If you have a specific concern about your child, please do contact their mentor first, who can connect you to the most appropriate staff member to provide additional support. If you have questions about any of the resources I’ve provided here, please do email me or talk to any of the other DLCs on our campus (Dave Caleb in Primary School and Tricia Friedman in High School).


Parking-Meter-Lamp:time expired flickr photo by dreyboblue shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
All other images are public domain.

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