Learning in the Age of Digital Distraction

by | Jan 6, 2017

Digital distraction is a term only those living in our Information Age might know. Being distracted by technology isn’t a new thing, but today’s tech is different. It’s personal—so personal, in fact, that we can’t imagine living our lives without it now. This is especially true of our digital youth, who didn’t inherit digital distraction but were born into it.

So what does this mean for learning?

Let’s discuss two differing viewpoints regarding learning while surrounded by digital distraction. The first one comes to us from Frank Furedi of the UK’s IndependentThe second one comes from National Public Radio’s Eric Westervelt. 

Frank Furedi: The Digital Distraction Myth

Furedi claims that the Age of Distraction is a myth and that digital devices are not destroying our concentration and memory as widely perceived. What he’s really saying is that we are barking up the wrong tree when we blame ‘digital devices.’ The age of distraction, he says, has been around for a long time and the blame of the day goes to our modern gadgets.

Furedi begins by citing countless examples of studies and books claiming that digital distraction is ruining our attention span. At some point he muses that any ‘distracted’ person would be hard pressed to manage completing any of those books. His point, finally, is that distractions and claims of attention-diminishing are nothing new. It is the culprit, though, that has changed over the years.

In ancient times, the distraction du jour was ‘writing.’ Socrates himself claimed that writing took one’s time away from thinking important thoughts. Along with writing, reading came not far behind as the blame for society’s ills. Credit Seneca’s letter to Lucilius in which he says too much reading makes one “discursive and unsteady.”

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Of course, one could not fight the growing age of the written word, what with the invention of the printing press, and now computers. Novels eventually became shorter and easier to digest with a cheapening of subject matter. Young boys and girls worried their parents by reading comic books and popular fiction.

Then of course, there was radio and then TV. Enter the era of information overload.

These days, reading has done an about face from being one of the things that distracts us to something that we strive to protect from distraction. We are no longer concerned that books distract people, but that we are distracted from reading itself.

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What about the Age of Distraction then? It is far more likely that our current predicament is not the availability of powerful and exciting new technologies of communication, but an uncertainty about what to communicate.

The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: What are people being distracted from? Perceptions of distractions are heightened by the difficulties that society has in giving meaning to the experience of everyday life.

Eric Westervelt: Filtering, Multitasking, and the Hunger for Information

With these questions and the reframing of our Age of Distraction in mind, let’s look to Eric Westervelt.

We have evolved from being ‘food foragers’ to being ‘info-foragers.’ Instead of being constantly under stress about where to find our next meal, we are checking our personal tech for the next big update.

Neurologist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen wrote a book called The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World. According to them, we’ve fallen victim to a sort of “hijacking or an evolution of that system” which in ancient days compelled us to seek existential needs such as food. We now seek information.

Central to our survival as a species is our ability to set high level goals. Accomplishing these goals is a complicated task and requires the utmost cognitive control. That includes attention, working memory, and goal management. Throw in multi-tasking and task switching and you’ve got a complex working platform for getting things done.

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Enter our distraction; the propensity to check our emails and phones every minute of the day. Switching between these tasks causes performance lags. This manifests as poor performance in school, jobs, and even relationships.

Now you might be saying, “I can handle this. I can play music while working. I can discipline myself to only check email for a little while then get back to work.” Gazzaley and Rosen say that it’s not the mental focus that is the problem. Sure, you can probably do those things. But research shows that the best learning is when we can ignore distractions. That means not letting them in at all.

Their premise is this: the issue of distraction is our inability to filter out unwanted distractions. When we try to multitask the other tasks are like white noise. They cloud our concentration from the task at hand.

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Maybe you have tried studying with Mozart in the background. You might be able to remember things short term because you are focusing on them. Nothing wrong with that, but your long term memory is jeopardized.

Look at it this way: it’s like interference, because your subconscious is processing outside distractions. Your focus on the subject at hand is dispersed to the distractions, such that there is a drop in quality.

In other words, we can’t get rid of all distraction. What we can improve upon is our ability to filter it.

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What Now?

So what are we to do? Go with the flow of evolution? Or resist?

Indeed, teachers are witnessing problems with the traditional model of sustaining attention on one topic for a long time. And it will continue to be a challenge. There are and will be more technologies making their way into the classroom, virtual reality for one.

We can’t get rid of our gadgets. In and of themselves, they are useful tools. What we are called to do is to seek out ways to enhance our filtering system. We have to “re-train ourselves to become comfortable with sustaining our attention on a single goal and for young people, who may have never developed this skill, to learn the value and to appreciate the value and to even feel the value of sustained attention.”

Lastly, as to the question posed by Mr. Furedi, “What are we being distracted from? What is the language that we are to use to give meaning to everyday life?” What is the greatest concern in this so-called Age of Distraction? If gadgets are not to be feared, what is their purpose?

Meaningful relationships. Community problem solving. A peaceful and productive global society.


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