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Help Your Student Deal with Digital Distractions

Alyssa Abel


Living in the internet era means we’re bombarded all day (and night) long with news and notifications. Parents text their kids when they want them to come downstairs for dinner. Phones ping with weather and traffic updates or social media posts at all hours.

Many of us can remember a less connected way of life — but not today’s college generation. Gen Z doesn't know another lifestyle; they are one with their screens.

Now, with high schools and colleges across the country transitioning to online learning because of COVID-19, students may need to take a step back and consider if how they engage with technology is having a negative impact on their health and studies.

During this unprecedented time, digital devices are both essential to learning and a continuous source of interruption. Here’s how to help your student deal with digital distractions this spring as they study remotely — and into the future when we are able to return to a more normal life.

How Digital Distraction Affects Productivity

Like most mammals, humans are an incredibly social species. Chatting with friends, and interacting pleasantly with strangers, triggers positive emotions.

But as we attach ourselves continuously to phones, tablets and laptops, even as we “interact” with others, we’re often missing out on in-person connections.

Still, it's hard to stop, especially for teens. If their friends are posting continuously online, they don't want to miss it. Smartphone users touch their devices more than 2,600 times each day!

As social interactions continue to move online, it can be increasingly challenging to manage real-life relationships and responsibilities. This includes school. With phone in hand, students can't fully focus on what’s in front of them — including when they're in class.

Digitally distracted students may cut study sessions short and neglect assignments. They take longer to complete tasks because their focus is fragmented. When personal gadgets are present in the classroom, students score half a letter grade lower than usual.

Taking classes online, students’ temptation to pursue other digital activities will only increase. Teachers and administrators can't nip this issue in the bud when students are being required right now to use digital platforms as their classrooms, resource centers and assessment tools. Only the students themselves — perhaps with parental help — can address the issue by developing self-discipline.

The Negative Impacts of Multitasking

Most teens and college students today find it natural to attempt multiple tasks at once. But how can you compose an email, proofread an essay, text a friend, browse YouTube and take notes at the same time?

You can't — at least, not effectively. It's impossible to do so without making an error, taking extra total time or putting in a subpar performance on each task.

When a person attempts to absorb new information while playing a smartphone game, their IQ starts to decline almost immediately. Whether your student is multitasking while attending an online class or doing homework, it's likely to negatively impact their retention and the quality of the work they produce.

Digital multitasking also affects mood and sleep cycles. With so much to do and so many distractions, students often become stressed and exhausted. When they don't sleep well, their ability to prepare for tests and complete projects suffers.

Signs of Technology Distraction

Sometimes it's difficult to tell there's a problem. After all, we're all technology users and even tech-dependent to some degree! Here are a few ways to identify if your student has an issue with digital distraction:

  • They can't seem to set down their smartphone. If your student checks their phone or constantly peruses social media while trying to complete schoolwork online, there's a bit of separation anxiety in play — which can point to digital addiction.
  • They never look up from their device. Even when you're out together or taking time as a family, you might feel like they’re more interested in catching up with their text messages than with you.
  • They miss out on conversations. If you constantly must bring your child’s attention back to the present — and they never seem to catch what anyone is saying — they might be digitally distracted.
  • They fall behind on their responsibilities. Is your student falling behind on deadlines, procrastinating with self-structured online coursework, struggling to get organized and remember assignments?

If any of this sounds familiar, your student may be spending too much time on nonessential digital activities and need help achieving digital balance in their life.

Ways to Build Better Habits

First and foremost, it's important to remember that you're not responsible for your student's academic record. Their performance depends on how much they want to succeed. They're adults, setting their own goals and making their own decisions.

However, they may need guidance to stay — or get back on — the right path. Here's how you can help.

1. Set Timers and Restrictions

Setting timers is a simple way to prevent excessive smartphone use. Every day when your student sits down to complete online coursework, they should put away their phone and focus on school. Encourage them to set a timer while they’re studying or install a plugin that prevents them from accessing email or social media sites.

2. Talk About Accountability

Even with your student back at home to complete their semester online, it’s not your job to provide constant supervision. It's up to them to implement good habits, but you can still make this a topic of discussion. Talk about accountability and why it's so important to remain engaged and dedicated, even if their classes look a little nontraditional right now. They’re not home to take a break — they’re still responsible for finishing the semester and completing all their coursework.

3. Turn Off Notifications

Especially if they have their laptops connected to social media accounts and text strands, push notifications contribute to digital distraction. Suggest to your student that they silence these alerts when they're online to watch lectures or complete coursework so that they can be completely present while learning.

4. Make Use of Resources

Schools typically offer a wide variety of support resources, and writing and tutoring centers will still be staffed even though consultations will have to take place virtually. If your student is having trouble focusing or struggling with the material in a class, urge them to contact their professor or advisor and ask for guidance. This is a challenging time for everyone, but your high school teachers and college faculty and staff are still available and truly want students to be successful.

5. Strive for a Balance

We can't expect our children to avoid distraction all the time. Instead, we can aim for a balance. Try to work with your student to establish boundaries. For example, agree on times when their smartphones and social accounts will be off or unreachable while they work on their online classes, and try to limit the amount of study breaks they take when “school” is in session.

Manage Digital Distraction While Succeeding in Online Courses

Digital distractions affect all of us. But because they haven’t known anything else, younger generations struggle the most with productivity, performance and distinguishing what really deserves their full attention from what push notifications tell them is important.

There are sure to be lots of challenges and frustrations as students transition to online courses — but they can still finish the semester strong. In fact, the adjustments they're learning to make now will only help them focus more effectively when they return to campus in the fall.

Alyssa Abel is an education writer and blogger with a focus on higher education. Read more of her work for students, educators and parents on her website, Syllabusy.com.
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