CARSON, Calif. — At Cal State Dominguez Hills, the low November sun had faded to dusk when professor Toddy Eames called for a break in the middle of a nearly three-hour screenwriting class.
“Fifteen minutes!” she announced as her students stood, stretched or ambled to the door. “You can take out your phones,” she added, but most students were already scrolling through the texts, emails, Snapchats and other postings that had piled up during an hour of mandated tech abstinence.
Since fall 2016, the communications department at California State University at Dominguez Hills has banned smartphones, laptops and other personal technology in every classroom — with grade deductions for violations — except for teacher-guided use and “tech breaks” during longer classes such as Eames’s. The policy was spearheaded by the department chairwoman, Nancy Cheever, who is part of a team at the university investigating digital distraction, an issue that, for many teachers, has graduated from a nuisance to a serious threat to learning.
In K-12 and college classrooms across the country, some educators are enacting at least partial device bans, some are advocating for teaching-style changes (fewer lectures, for example) and still others are seeking help from the technology itself. There’s little consensus, except that the peril of digital distraction neither starts nor ends in school and that learning to tame our tech obsession is a new and vital life skill.
The distraction researchers at Dominguez Hills — Cheever and psychologists Larry Rosen and Mark Carrier — are digging deeper into compulsive tech use. They want to see how the constant alerts and phone checks register in our brains, what thoughts or emotions trigger the distractions, and what might keep them at bay.
It’s not just young people who are smartphone-obsessed. The difference between today’s students and older generations, according to the Dominguez Hills team, is that younger people are more confident in their ability to multitask and do it more often.
But true multitasking is a myth. Our brains focus on one thing by shutting out other things. We can’t pay attention to two things simultaneously, such as reading a text string while listening to a teacher’s instructions. Inevitably, something gets missed. Plus, rapid attention-switching exacts its own cognitive penalties.
A growing body of research finds that the more students multitask, the lower their grades. And student multitasking is nearly constant. A few years ago, the Dominguez Hills researchers watched hundreds of middle school, high school and university students as they studied. The students stayed with a single task for less than six minutes on average before switching to something else.
Seated at a table in his lab, Rosen rattled off statistics about his students’ smartphone use, which he’d tracked with an app (with their permission) for two years: Average daily phone use jumped from 3 hours and 40 minutes in 2016 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in 2017.
Rosen — who co-authored “The Distracted Mind” (2016) with Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California — held up his own phone. “This thing isn’t a tool,” he said. “It’s an appendage.”
The constant checking of mobile devices has triggered classroom technology bans, especially at the college level. For instance, in 2017, after two studies out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point found that students who used laptops in class received poorer grades, the lead researchers of the studies banned computers from their classrooms.
At the same time, many educators are adamant that the answer to digital distraction isn’t to ban devices but to adjust how teachers teach in light of technology’s omnipresence.
“If you’re lecturing, your odds going up against Facebook, the Victoria’s Secret catalogue or an online game are slim,” said Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.” She argues for more dialogue with young people about technology and the need to learn how to manage its throughout their lives.
Likewise, the nonprofit Common Sense Education uses the slogan “Don’t Make a Ban Have a Plan” in its online tool kit for fighting digital distraction. The tool kit includes suggestions for meaningful things students can use their devices for — such as classroom polling, quiz apps and digital creation tools — and advice for setting boundaries with a “Customizable Device Contract.”
Hoping to strike the right balance, a growing number of educators have sought help from the technology itself, such as the app Flipd, which shuts down student smartphones during class — with compliance that can be tracked by the teacher — or TabPilot, a “mobile device management” system that gives teachers a dashboard view of each student’s iPad and the power to take control and snap the browser of every device to a specific app or website.
During the pause in the Dominguez Hills screenwriting class, student Miroslava Cerda stayed at her desk near the front and scanned texts. Noting the messaging and social media alerts swamping her phone, she said, “Sometimes it just gets too much, and I’m like, ‘Ugh! I need a break.’ ”
Still, she acknowledged the allure of connectivity. Even with a classroom technology ban, she said, “sometimes I still want to sneak a peek.”
In fact, there’s growing evidence suggesting that mobile devices can hijack our minds even when we’re not scrolling. A 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that student subjects who kept their smartphones on their desks (facedown and on silent), rather than in a backpack or stashed in another room, performed worse on tests of attention and cognitive processing. The difference was biggest among students who reported being the most attached to their smartphones.
What gives these devices such a strong hold on us? A prime suspect is a form of anxiety commonly known as FOMO — “Fear of Missing Out” — a term that originated in the early 2000s at Harvard Business School to describe graduate students’ frantic, text-driven social lives. The arrival of social media supercharged FOMO, and the term was popularized by MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book, “Alone Together.”
The Dominguez Hills researchers are exploring a distilled version of this anxiety — a sense of dread when separated from our virtual social networks, comparable to the jitters of an addict in early withdrawal.
The depth of the anxiety correlates with the extent of a person’s smartphone use, according to a 2014 study led by Cheever. Undergraduate subjects, rated as light, medium or heavy users of mobile devices based on survey responses, were deprived of their smartphones for more than an hour; they reported their anxiety levels at regular intervals. The anxiety felt by the light users stayed steady for the duration of the study, while the anxiety of heavy users shot through the roof as the phoneless time continued.
The possibility that such anxiety can gum up our mental works as much as the occasional Facebook foray is the rationale for the “tech breaks” in Cheever’s department. “What helps with the anxiety is if you tell them, ‘Okay, for this amount of time, you’re not going to look at your phone, but then you’ll get to check in again,’ ” she said. The goal is to wean the brain off its need to constantly check in, by relieving the anxiety that drives the compulsion.
Back at the screenwriting course, however, the direction of society’s technological tide was clear. Smartphones appeared in every story workshopped — sometimes, nearly as prominently as the characters themselves.
At one point, Eames led a class discussion about how best to write instant-message dialogue. A few students zoned out occasionally — picking at cuticles or twirling hair and pens — but nobody stared into a screen. One student stood out because of his dress slacks and a dark gray tie clipped neatly to an indigo button-down. More distinctive was the fact that during the tech breaks, this student, Jonathon Rodriguez, reached for a book rather than his phone. That particular evening, he immersed himself in “Story,” the class textbook on screenwriting by Robert McKee.
“It’s part of my decision to take school more seriously,” said Rodriguez, a first-year master’s student in English. He offered a philosophical reflection on why we have such a hard time avoiding our screens.
“It really isn’t that hard, but people have all these insecurities,” he said. “They can have actual, intelligent conversations with real people in class. But, the fact that they’re not getting likes on Instagram or Facebook tells them they’re not liked or appreciated by the world.”